Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California, is known for her work on the malleability of human memory. She and her colleagues called into question the reliability of recovered memories in sexual abuse cases. This syndrome got rampant media attention in the 90s. People remembered all kinds of unbelievably bizarre events that included torture, satanic ritualistic murder, and a host of sexual perversions. It created an atmosphere that resembles the witch-hunt trials of old, with people accused (and even imprisoned) of crimes where the only “evidence” was memories from dreams and flashbacks. Memories, by the way, that were not recalled before people got into therapy.
Loftus and her colleagues revealed how easy it is to plant false memories into the minds of patients. They demonstrated that some memories are true, some are a mixture of fact and fantasy, and some are entirely false. The only way to distinguish true from false memories is by external corroboration (read more about false memory syndrome at www.fmsf.com.
Dr. Loftus has turned her attention from false memory syndrome to studying whether it’s possible to plant memories in people’s minds that will get them to change their behaviors. For example, is it possible to convince people not to like certain fattening foods? The results of her recently released study (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August, 2005) say that, indeed, it is possible to “implant in subjects, a false memory of an experience in which fattening foods made them sick.”
Subjects were persuaded that they became ill after eating hard-boiled eggs and dill pickles as children, and it actually changed their eating behavior. Loftus said, “We can convince people they really loved asparagus the first time they tried it as a kid.” She moved on to greater challenges, using ice cream as the sickening memory, and found that 40% of the participants actually came to believe that strawberry ice cream made them sick and were less inclined to eat it.
I use hypnotherapy, so I know how easy it is to plant ideas in people’s minds (which I find both amazing and sometimes frightening). I cannot imagine such an implanted suggestion lasting long on me. I love ice cream. I am one of those believers who thinks it deserves its own food group. My experience with ice cream is so good, and has lasted so long, that no implanted suggestion could overcome it. The likelihood of hating Jamocha Almond Fudge, Cherry’s Garcia, Phish Food, a Raspberry Gelato, or Peanut Buster Parfait — give me a break! I’m already walking to the freezer.