Twenty years ago a movie named Blade Runner -- ostensibly about human-like robots rebelling against their masters -- adroitly confounded the near-certainty we all hold of our own memories. In the end, the question was: how do you know that you're not just a replicant, with implanted false memories of a childhood that never existed?
Now, new research is continually showing that human memory is incredibly malleable, and that we're wide to doubt ourselves, no matter how clear our memory may seem.
"We can easily distort memories for the details of an event that you did experience," says Loftus. "And we can also go so far as to plant entirely false memories - we call them rich false memories because they are so detailed and so big."In Memento we all pitied Leonard Shelby, who had no long-term memory and couldn't remember anything that happened more than a few minutes in the past. But really, how much better are our own memories? They're mostly amalgamations and approximations of real events, all jumbled together and distorted by perspective, time, conscious desires, and self-delusion.
She has persuaded people to adopt false but plausible memories - for instance, that at the age of five or six they had the distressing experience of being lost in a shopping mall - as well as implausible ones: memories of witnessing demonic possession, or an encounter with Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. Bugs Bunny is a Warner Brothers character, and as the Los Angeles Times put it earlier this year, "The wascally Warner Bros. Wabbit would be awwested on sight", at Disney.
Elizabeth Loftus' research has obvious implications for the reliability of eyewitness testimony. And it was as a result of her findings that in 1994 she co-wrote her book, The Myth of Repressed Memory, and took a strong stand in the recovered memory debate of the 90s, for which she was reviled by those who claimed to have uncovered repressed memories of abuse - alien, sexual or otherwise.