Wired Magazine Article on False Memory

Wired magazine has recently published an article on how memory research can be applied to criminal cases to distinguish between reliable and non-reliable memories. Dr Julia Shaw, criminal psychologist at London South Bank University, describes some of the cases in which she has been involved, and how her research has helped lawyers and police define authentic memories and avoid the creation of false memories.

When Shaw works on cases she systematically looks for red flags. Cues such as age are important. For instance, before we reach the age of three, our brains cannot form memories that last into adulthood, meaning that claimed recollections from that period are suspect. She also investigates who the accuser was with when they recalled the memory, what questions they were asked, and whether in other circumstances, such as therapy, somebody could feasibly have planted the seed of a memory that took root in their minds.

Finally, Shaw looks for claims that the memory resurfaced suddenly, out of the blue, which can point to repressed memories. It’s a discredited Freudian concept that supports the premise that dredging up supposedly forgotten memories can explain a person’s psychological and emotional turmoil, but scientifically, it’s unsubstantiated.

Understanding the ramifications of memory gone wrong drives Shaw. She believes that limited awareness of memory research in therapy, policing and law is contributing to systemic failures, and is training the German police on improving interrogation techniques.

The work of Elizabeth Loftus is mentioned and how she tested out her theory that false memories could be reliably implanted, by experimenting on volunteer students during a research project. Shaw has obtained similar results by replicating a modified version of the study. Both provide clear proof that false memories can be created and that subjects can have total belief in their truthfulness, without lying to themselves – they are sincere, but wrong. The implications for the criminal justice system are enormous.

Shaw has collaborated with Kevin Felstead, Director of Communications for the BFMS, in examining 2500 cases provided by the organisation, to discover how false memories are created and the manner in which they evolve over time. The spectre of bad therapy looms large over these cases, now compounded by what Dr Felstead has called the ‘post-Savile effect’.

The criminal justice system has historically let down victims. Real victims had terrible ordeals in those court rooms. Nobody believed them, and they were ridiculed. Now, since Savile, it’s gone in the opposite direction.

And that is one of the reasons why memory research and an understanding of false memory are so vital – the difference between knowing and not knowing them can be the difference between an innocent or guilty verdict.

The article is by science journalist Emma Bryce, and can be read in the latest edition of Wired magazine (July – August 2017), pp 141 – 147. http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine