The Memory Doctor

The Road to Therapy

Finding good uses for mental manipulation.

Elizabeth Loftus warmed to the idea of memory tampering for the best of reasons. She wanted to help people.

Loftus introduced the “memory doctor” in her 1980 book Memory

In her official career, as she described it in books, she studied the art of mental manipulation only to dissect, expose, and defeat it. Occasionally, she lent her psychological expertise to lawyers or advertisers for their self-interested purposes. But these purposes weren’t hers, so she never turned them into a career.

To embrace memory tampering, she needed a purpose of her own. Something she could believe in and care about. Something that could put her skills to good use.

The story of how Loftus found that purpose—the story of her shadow career—began 30 years ago with a metaphor. “Imagine a world in which people could go to a special kind of psychologist or psychiatrist—a memory doctor—and have their memories modified,” she mused in her 1980 book, Memory.

Why should we cling tightly to those memories that disturb us and spoil our lives? Life might become so much more pleasant if it is not marred by our memory of past ills, sufferings, and grievances. … We seem to have been purposely constructed with a mechanism for erasing the tape of our memory, or at least bending the memory tape, so that we can live and function without being haunted by the past. Accurate memory, in some instances, would simply get in the way. Memory, p. 147”> 

The doctor, as Loftus initially conceived it, was just a metaphor. And that was how she presented it in her introduction. But by the end of the book, she was taking it literally. She proposed “to put the malleable memory to work in ways that can serve us well.” Memory, p. 190”> 

She envisioned this as a personal choice. “It would be nice,” she mused, if each person “could decide whether he or she wanted to have an accurate memory versus a ‘rosy’ memory.” Memory, p. 190”>  But memory modification didn’t work that way. If you knew a rosy memory was rosy, you wouldn’t buy it. The memory had to be presented as accurate. The patient had to be deceived.

In 1979, as she was writing Memory, Loftus took her first steps in this direction. She and James Fries, a professor of medicine, published two articles calling for limits on informed consent to medical or experimental procedures. Through the power of suggestion, many patients developed side effects predicted by doctors. To reduce this problem, Loftus and Fries proposed (download) that anyone facing a procedure should be told its overall level of risk, but “detailed information should be reserved for those who request it. Specific slight risks, particularly those resulting from common procedures, should not be routinely disclosed to all subjects.”

This wasn’t really a withholding of information, they argued. The details would still be available on the back of a consent form. Anyway, it was impossible to tell patients the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And the purpose of informed consent, they reasoned, was to protect patients. Shouldn’t patients be similarly protected from harmful hypothetical information?

The proposal seemed logical. But its logic didn’t stop at relegating scenarios to the back of a form. If obscuring harmful information was good medicine, what about supplying helpful misinformation?

Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the memory doctor in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. At the request of two distraught lovers, he erased their memories of their relationship

By 1982, Loftus was talking more seriously about therapeutic memory modification. “Since suggesting the idea of a memory clinic with memory doctors busily working on the minds of eager clients,” she reported, “I have come across the writings of practicing therapists who suggest that the idea is not all that far-fetched.” She wrote of therapists who were “creating entire personal histories in people. In this way, they enabled their clients to have experiences that would serve as the resources for the kinds of behaviors the clients wanted now to have.” To encourage weight loss, for example, “the therapists created ‘new childhoods’ in which the clients grew up as thin people.”

Memory doctors were no longer a fantasy. They were real. But Loftus didn’t see herself as one of them. She was an experimenter, not a therapist. It wasn’t until 1990, when she stumbled on the Eileen Franklin case, that she began to learn how to create whole childhood recollections. And by then, she was consumed by the dangers of memory tampering. The recovered-memory therapists were ruining people’s lives.

To replicate and expose their fabrications, Loftus was busy planting bad memories. It was important but depressing work. One day, as she was explaining her research at a University of Washington colloquium, a colleague asked, “Have you ever thought about planting a positive memory? Maybe you could increase self-esteem.”

Loftus hadn’t thought of memory doctoring as a good idea in more than a decade. And now the idea struck her quite differently. It was no longer a mystery. It was her craft. She could do it.

In Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger hired a company to plant a virtual vacation in his memory. In real life, the virtual vacations were packaged with the movie on DVD

Her first idea, cooked up over lunch with a friend, was to plant a memory of sitting on your grandmother’s lap and being told that you were her favorite grandchild. Wouldn’t that feel wonderful? But then she realized what would happen at the end of the experiment. As a research psychologist, she was ethically required to tell her subjects that the memory wasn’t true. She couldn’t bear to do that. So she dropped the idea.

Then another idea came along. Loftus had two junior colleagues studying imagination and memory. They were demonstrating that the act of imagining an experience increased people’s confidence that the experience had really happened. Loftus tacked on a second experiment to see whether similar imagination exercises could increase healthy behaviors. The subjects were asked to imagine flossing and eating vegetables with dinner. It seemed to work: 24 percent of subjects later reported more flossing, and 40 percent reported more vegetable consumption.

In February 1997, Loftus unveiled her new line of thinking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She explained how imagination could distort memory, and she conceded that this was often harmful. But rather than renounce the whole idea, she proposed to “harness the power of imagination and put it to some good use” by inducing healthier behavior.

Soon she was being flown to Washington, D.C., for a workshop organized by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Its purpose was to figure out how behavioral science could inform behavior therapy. She presented her findings on imagination and memory, and the group discussed how this research could be clinically applied. Based on the presentation, Loftus and a colleague, Giuliana Mazzoni, wrote up a proposal and published it in the Autumn 1998 issue of Behavior Therapy.

Loftus had two models to work from. One was the accidental brainwashing recipe of the recovered-memory therapists. The other was her copy of that recipe, refined in the laboratory. All she had to do was tweak it.

The tweaked recipe, outlined in Behavior Therapy, was a procedure called Expert Personalized Suggestion. The patient’s behavior would be changed through the power of suggestion, in the form of guided imagination exercises. She would envision herself flossing, for example, and would be promised better flossing habits as a result. This promise would be made credible by a tailored analysis of her personality. And she would accept the analysis and the suggestion because they came from an expert.

Loftus speaking at Beyond Belief, a conference of the Science Network, November 2006

The authors described this as “a novel procedure that capitalizes on what past research has intimated about the power of an authority figure, and the power of personalized suggestion, to influence people’s thinking about their past.” The past research, much of it conducted by Loftus, had focused on the danger of these powers. But the new procedure exploited them. It incorporated some of the tricks she had learned from the recovered-memory therapists, starting with pseudo-customized diagnosis. The diagnosis was actually scripted, and the expertise, as presented to the patient, was fraudulent. In fact, Loftus and Mazzoni called the whole thing a “therapy simulation.” But instead of hurting people, it would help them. It would get them to floss, take calcium supplements, and avoid cigarettes.

There was one catch: The procedure wouldn’t work if patients knew it was fake. They had to believe that the therapy, expertise, and personalization were real. “We probably would not wish to include the deceptive aspects of the methodology because it is not ethically acceptable to deceive a client,” the authors conceded. But maybe this problem could be fudged: “Suppose after a short interview with [the patient], the clinician tells her that he proposes trying an imagination exercise that he is quite confident, given her interview, will lead her to increase her consumption of calcium. In a real sense this is a true statement,” since imagination exercises, on average, did change behavior. If the simulation worked, it wasn’t fake—was it?

With each innovation and rationalization, Loftus was building a technical and moral case for therapeutic trickery. But one ingredient was still missing from her recipe: memory.

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