Aah, the memories: looking back on an inspiring career in psychology

Aah, the memories: looking back on an inspiring career in psychology

Dr Eryn Newman remembers learning about Professor Elizabeth Loftus’ research into false memories during an undergraduate lecture.

“It was a course called ‘Memory’ and while I was sitting there, I realised that my family had a false memory of our own.

“My younger sister remembers feeding our lamb, but when you look back at the dates, it’s actually completely impossible that she could have, because she couldn’t even crawl at the time. My sister has this vivid memory of having done that and she could tell you all about it, but it didn’t happen.”

“If you look back through your family memories, especially old ones like this, you’ll find they simply aren’t reliable,” Dr Newman says. “It can be quite shocking.”

Now Dr Newman stands at the front of a lecture theatre, teaching a very similar class about memory in a course on forensic and criminal psychology at the ANU Research School of Psychology. She watches as her students go through the same eye-opening experience she did, extrapolating out from the malleability of their own benign memories, to what this malleability means in much more serious contexts.

“In that course, we start off with lie detection, interrogations, and we move on to eyewitness testimony and jury decision-making. And by the end, I think the students are overwhelmed by the number of different factors that influence not only someone's ability to recall events accurately, but the number of different factors that can influence the details of that memory.

“When you begin to understand how fragile our memories are, it can be terrifying.”

Our understanding of this fragility is thanks to the pioneering work of Professor Loftus, who was recently in Australia to deliver the Research School of Psychology Annual Lecture at ANU. She was also interviewed by Dr Newman—who studied under Loftus as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California, Irvine—for the Canberra Writers’ Festival.

Dr Newman and Professor Loftus.

Where once we might have understood memory to be like a recording device, Professor Loftus has demonstrated that memory is more like a Wikipedia page. “You can go in there and change it. But so can anybody else,” she says in her TED Talk, which has been viewed over four million times.

An early piece of her research demonstrated that witnesses to a car crash can have their memory of the events altered by being exposed to misinformation about the event after the fact, and also by leading questions. This, and her subsequent work over 45 years, has changed the way eyewitness testimony is considered in criminal justice systems around the world.

“Her work has shifted procedures so that eyewitness testimony is now treated more like other forensic evidence,” Dr Newman says. “You need to collect it carefully, and then protect it, the same way you would with anything you find a crime scene.”

Dr Newman has similarly conducted research which could have significant implications for the courtroom. In a recent study, she played recordings of witness testimony in either high audio quality or low audio quality—where an echo was added to the microphone—to see how it affected the credibility of the speaker.

“What we found is that when we presented exactly the same content, the echo on the microphone led people to perceive the eyewitness as less trustworthy, and their testimony as less credible,” Dr Newman explains.

“A little detail like that might have an impact on whether someone is found guilty or not as a result of that testimony.”

Dr Newman’s focus on trustworthiness and belief, and Professor Loftus’ work on memory, are increasingly intersecting in our era of fake news, social media manipulation and deep fake videos. Professor Loftus’s most recent research found that voters can actually form false memories from exposure to manipulated ‘truthy’ news stories.

“It does make you wonder if you can trust information around you, or even your recall of your own memory, from an autobiographical perspective,” Dr Newman says. “It can feel like everything is constructed.”

Like we’re living in The Matrix?

“Yes,” she laughs. “Actually, yes. And that is rather worrying!”

Find out how a degree in psychology can change the way you think.

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