Storytelling and the Science of True and False Memories

Written by: Maria Baltazzi

Left to Right: moderator Ahmed Best with memory experts Elizabeth Loftus and Jeffrey Zacks.
Photo credit: Maria Baltazzi

“If it did not happen, do you think that I could make you remember that when you were a child, you were attacked by a vicious animal?”

“Could I make you remember that as a teenager, you committed a crime, and it was serious enough that the police came to investigate?”

“Could I make you remember that a week ago you were playing a card game, and cheated, and took money out of the card bank that you weren’t entitled to take?”

These were the questions asked as we settled into the cushy, red velvet theater seats at the Soho House in West Hollywood. The questions were posed by the one of the world’s leading experts on the psychological science of memory and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Elizabeth Loftus.

Psychological scientists like Elizabeth and the other evening’s guest speaker, Jeffery Zacks, author or editor of more than 100 research publications, feature articles in The New York Times and Salon, and 4 books, including Flicker: Your Brain on Movies—an exploration of filmmaking through the lens of psychological science—spend their lives delving into the scientific basis for why we behave the way we do, and why behaviors have consequences and the types of social and biological determinants of how we behave. Several of us from the entertainment industry filled the Soho House screening room to find out what they had to say.

Derek Snyder, Senior Director for Science Partnerships and Outreach at the American Psychological Association (APA), introduced the evening’s talk by saying they are “trying to bring psychology back into people’s living rooms.” One way to do that is through storytelling. Thus, the reason why a group of producers, directors, and writers were gathered. APA partnered with The Science & Entertainment Exchange to bring experts to share their knowledge with the entertainment community. They desire to get more behavioral science into the stories being told. The first guest speaker, Elizabeth, cited a good example with Peacock’s new series Irrational. “I think that show is doing what we would like to see done, which is bring some psychological science into Hollywood.”

Elizabeth studies what we remember and how facts, ideas, and suggestions can alter what one remembers about one’s past. Sometimes, this comes with harmful consequences. Her work on false and recovered memories has been the source of both controversy and discovery about the reliability of witness testimony in legal cases. She has been an expert witness or consultant in dozens of high-profile legal cases and the subject of a New Yorker article in 2021 on just this topic. Elizabeth’s background gives us some indication as to why studying memory is important.

“Without memory you wouldn’t know how to get up in the morning and make coffee and figure out your way to the bus stop … but it doesn’t always work perfectly.” Actually, it often works imperfectly in the form of misinformation, and it is everywhere. There is even what is called the Misinformation Effect—when people are exposed to misinformation that negatively affects their memory. We get misinformation when we are questioned or interrogated. We get misinformation when we are exposed to media coverage. We get misinformation when we talk to others right after a shared experience. All of these are “opportunities for new information to enter someone’s memory and cause a contamination, a transformation, a distortion, sometimes just a supplementation of memory.”

Elizabeth asked the audience more questions. Can I “pour information into your mind” to make you remember things that did not happen? The typical reaction is, “No way would I confess to a crime that I didn’t commit.” Well, you may think differently about this after listening to Elizabeth. Over the past couple of decades, she developed two paradigms for studying human memory. One of them is the Misinformation Paradigm, where people are exposed to a simulated crime, accident, or event and later told new leading or misinformation about the event. The subjects are then questioned about what they recall.

An example from her early experiments showed people an accident where a Datsun went through a stop sign without stopping before the accident occurred. Then they were asked a leading question: Did another car pass the Datsun while it was at the intersection with the yield sign? The key words here are “yield sign.” The people were fed that there was a yield sign at the intersection. So, when they were later asked what kind of sign was at the intersection, guess what they said? A yield sign. What was really there? A stop sign.

Elizabeth also talked about extreme forms of “memory contamination,” where people would enter psychotherapy with one kind of problem, such as anxiety or depression, and come out with horrific childhood trauma that they had not previously been aware of, including believing they were part of satanic rituals where they were forced to kill animals. As a researcher, Elizabeth started asking how you make people believe they killed an animal or committed a crime when they did not. That is when she came up with the Rich False Paradigm when there is no inciting event. Instead, information about an experience is fed to the subject, planted, and their memory is tested about the incident. One mega-study by investigators in multiple countries found that people fell for a richly detailed false memory about 30 percent of the time. And 23 percent developed a belief that an event happened even though they did not have a recollection of it.

So, how do you know the difference between a false and true memory? Because false memories can be just as emotional as true ones. The neural signals are similar. This is a lingering question and also raises ethical questions about when you control a situation by feeding information for a desired outcome, like a political campaign. Elizabeth does not think this is something for cognitive psychologists to decide. It is for society to decide. Her parting warning and advice was “just because someone says something with confidence and says it with a lot of detail, and they cry when they tell you the story, it doesn’t mean that it really happened. You need independent corroboration to know whether you are dealing with a genuine memory or a product of some other process.”

The following guest speaker then stepped on to the stage. Jeffery studies how the brain processes our perception of the world to form our understanding of events in time and space and how we remember these events. He began by expressing gratitude to the entertainment community—much of his thinking about how the mind and the brain work has been informed by the conversations he has had with storytellers.

The paradox that has captivated Jeffery for the past 25 years is that we live in a high bandwidth world, yet our brain’s central processing units are slow, error-prone, and have limited capacity. His example of this was shown in a digitized 2K clip from Raiders of the Lost Ark, where there was a lot of movement, characters, objects, and color. Here, he highlighted the significant bandwidth size of the auditory and visual information signal projected on the screen, and if you were to zoom in on one pixel of the scene we were watching, you would find about 32 million bits per frame. If each of these frame bits in the 7,000-second-long film (shot at 24 frames/sec) were pieces of popcorn representing 1.25 billion frame bits, it would stretch around the world three times. And that is just the visual information we take in as we watch this movie. Is your head spinning yet?

In the real world, our central nervous system can deal with only modest amounts of information at a time. So, how do you take the large volume of information just described and “cram it into a leaky, small capacity spigot” (our brain)? According to Jeffrey, there are three ways: filtering stuff out (focusing one’s attention), abstraction (seeing no shades of red; only that there is just red), and chunking (we take a region of space or space/time and treat it as one segment versus the individuality of every point). As it turns out, chunking is powerful in controlling our cognition of everyday life. We see the events of our lives in a sequence of chunks that represent what is happening.

An example is we get up, shower, and eat. The thought is that chunking helps build a representation in the brain to help us predict how things will unfold in the near future. If that prediction is incorrect, we update our internal picture of what is happening and switch to a new internal state. This becomes our subjective experience of one activity ending and another starting. Doing this over time leaves impressions on our memory, and it is believed that events in our long-term memory are shaped by seeing life in chunks or segments.

So, we chunk ongoing experiences into events, which determines “the structure” of our experiences and our memory.

The evening wrapped up with an audience Q&A moderated by actor, writer, director, and University of Southern California dramatic arts teacher Ahmed Best.

Jeffrey closed the evening with this parting comment, “When I see a story that has a well-rounded, three-dimensional scientist character who is not a pencil-neck geek or the Q providing the gadget, I think that’s just great.”

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.