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It's easy to plant false memories, study finds

Tricks on brain could have legal ramifications

Monday, February 17, 2003

By Michael Woods, Post-Gazette National Bureau

DENVER -- Everything you remember from last week may not be real, a panel of scientific experts cautioned yesterday.

That is because the human brain is frighteningly susceptible to suggestive comments, subliminal messages and other tricks that can form false memories.

Among the brain's memory scams is a strange but surprisingly common phenomenon called sleep paralysis. Scientists identified it as the likely explanation in people claiming they've been abducted and molested by space aliens.

Research spanning 20 years has given us almost a recipe for planting and embellishing false memories in people, said Elizabeth F. Loftus, a professor of psychology and criminology at the University of California at Irvine. This has serious implications for false memory problems that are occurring in society, which are really memory distortion episodes, she said.

Loftus and other experts on false memories, who spoke at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, cited several concerns. Police interrogation practices, for instance, may intentionally or unwittingly plant false memories in suspects or witnesses, they said, and embellish the memories with life-like detail.

A controversial practice in which psychologists try to recover repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse also got attention at the session. In some cases, psychologists may actually create in their patients memories of childhood events that never occurred. Innocent people can be prosecuted and jailed as a result.

Loftus described planting false memories in more than 20,000 research volunteers. They included recollections of accidents, leisure time activities, childhood trauma and other events that never occurred.

More than a third of subjects in the study recalled being hugged by Bugs Bunny at Disneyland-- impossible because Bugs is not a Disney character -- after a researcher planted the false memory.

Research has shown that it is possible to do more just than change a detail or two in a memory, Loftus said. Totally false memories of events that never occurred can be planted intentionally or unintentionally. The process involves, in part, making a person believe that an event could have happened, and suggesting that it could have happened to them even if they don't remember it.

Loftus proposed establishing a National Memory Safety Board. A counterpart to the National Transportation Safety Board, it would investigate memory problems that led to injustices in the legal system.

Harvard University's Richard J. McNally described research on another memory trick now believed to be the basis of alien abduction stories. People who claim to have been abducted by space aliens are not mentally ill, he said, citing numerous studies. Rather, they probably are victims of sleep paralysis, a condition that occurs when people who are awaken from deep sleep are only partially conscious of their surroundings and can't move. About one in three people have experienced it, he said, with one in 20 having a severe form accompanied by hallucinations. Some involve otherworldly sensations that can be mistaken for alien encounters, he said.

Michael Woods can be reached at mwoods@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7072. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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