Changing Minds

Sheril at The Intersection is asking where the women with big, world-changing ideas are. JLK at Pieces of Me wants to know where the psychologists are who made a difference in the world. I can answer them both in one person, Elizabeth Loftus.

Even if you’re not in psychology, there’s a fair chance you’ve heard of Loftus. She’s known as a skeptic, and her work has enough real-world implications that she makes the news fairly frequently.

If you are in psychology and you don’t know who she is…well, I don’t know what to do with you.

Loftus has been researching memory for somewhere around forty years. She started out by doing what everyone around that time was doing, studying storage and retrieval, classification and chunking–the nuts and bolts of memory of items. Then she started asking the kind of questions JLK is now.

All this time, Loftus had been working seven days a week on yellow fruits: specifically, she was studying how the mind classifies and remembers information. In the early seventies, she began to reevaluate her direction. “I wanted my work to make a difference in people’s lives.” She asked herself, “What do I talk about when I have no other reason to be talking?” An impassioned conversation about a man who’d been convicted after killing someone in self-defense suggested the answer. Perhaps she could combine her interest in memory with her fascination with crime by looking at eyewitness accounts.

Loftus obtained a grant to show people films of accidents and crimes and test their memory of such events. Thus the study of eyewitness testimony was born, a field she can literally claim as her own. At that time the world believed that eyewitness testimony was as reliable as a video camera. Loftus found that just the questions interviewers asked, and even the specific words they used, significantly influenced memory. “How fast were the two cars going when they hit each other?” will elicit slower estimates than “…when they smashed each other?”

Merely by careful questioning, Loftus could cause subjects to remember stop signs as yield signs, or place nonexistent barns in empty fields. Subsequent research has shown that violent events decrease the accuracy of memory: in fact, memory is weakest at both low (boredom, sleepiness) and high (stress, trauma) levels of arousal. The bottom line? Memory is fragile, suggestible, and can easily decay over time.

In other words, she started studying how memory works in real life, with real complications. In the process, she completely changed how we think about memory. She also changed police procedures and how trials are conducted. She created a great deal of upheaval, for which she’s probably still not well liked, but she set us on the path to understanding the science behind at least one part of the law.

In the eighties, another kind of memory started hitting courtrooms–recovered memory of sexual abuse, sometimes of organized ritual abuse. Loftus paid attention.

We live in a strange and precarious time that resembles at its heart the hysteria and superstitious fervor of the witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Men and women are being accused, tried, and convicted with no proof or evidence of guilt other than the word of the accuser. Even when the accusations involve numerous perpetrators, inflicting grievous wounds over many years, even decades, the accuser’s pointing finger of blame is enough to make believers of judges and juries. Individuals are being imprisoned on the “evidence” provided by memories that come back in dreams and flashbacks — memories that did not exist until a person wandered into therapy and was asked point-blank, “Were you ever sexually abused as a child?” And then begins the process of excavating the “repressed” memories through invasive therapeutic techniques, such as age regression, guided visualization, trance writing, dream work, body work, and hypnosis.

Loftus had already seen how easy it was to change the details of memory by asking the right questions. Now she turned her attention to creating memories of events that never happened. We may not be surprised now that this can happen, and fairly easily, but much of that understanding is due to her work.

This was, of course, controversial.

She has been called a whore by a prosecutor in a courthouse hallway, assaulted by a passenger on an airplane shouting, “You’re that woman!”, and has occasionally required surveillance by plainclothes security guards at lectures.

Perhaps her voluminous mail says it best. One anonymous letter from an incest survivor concludes, “Please consider your work to be on the same level as those who deny the existence of the extermination camps during WWII.” Another, from a jailed minister accused of mass child molestation, begins, “Your dedication and compassion for the innocent have earned my deepest admiration.” Yet another, from a confused therapy patient, reads: “For the past two years I have done little else but try to remember. I have been told that my unconscious will release the memories in its own time and in its own way…And I need to know if I am really remembering. The guessing has become unbearable.”

Loftus has been challenged on the basis that she doesn’t study traumatic memory formation in children. However, her work (and others‘) suggests that the use of leading questioning, hypnosis, descriptions of others’ abuse and statements that a patient matches the profile of an abuse victim are all problematic forms of therapy that could potentially lead to false memories being created. Her work, once again, has practical implications for how we help others and society.

Wherever one falls on the controversies surrounding Loftus, she has dramatically changed our understanding of memory. She’s done this in ways that have direct implications for achieving justice. In doing so, she’s changed our world.

Changing Minds

A Eulogy in Food

In the beginning, she cooked for me. In the end, I cooked for her.

The food my grandmother cooked for me was the staples of the fifties, food from cans and boxes, but she made it work in a way I never did. Her au gratin potatoes were creamy and cheesy. Her casseroles didn’t taste alike, even though cream of mushroom soup was the main ingredient of all of them. Jello salads behaved for her. None of this two inches of fruit on the top and none in the bottom.

The food I cooked for her was improvisational and made from scratch. A couple of ham and pork shoulder bones taking up room in the freezer. Turn them and the leek ends into stock and add…hmm, what have we got? We froze some of the ham. Potatoes, I think, for starch and onions and corn to add some sharp and sweet notes. A little paprika, just because. Call it soup.

She’d cooked for more than seventy years but always talked toward the end about all the new things she was eating. My grandfather said the same thing, but his tone was more of relief than wonder. For me, my grandmother’s cooking was the comfort food of my childhood. Unlike a lot of food I ate as a kid, I don’t hate it now. I miss it.

I’m going to miss her, too, even though we had about as much in common as our cooking styles would suggest. I’ll miss the fidgeting and fussing. I’ll miss the worrying about everyone and everything. I’ll miss her never quite getting that the fact that we could take care of her meant we could take care of ourselves. I’ll even miss her perpetual wonder that my husband and brothers cook just as well as I do.

I’ll miss the cookies every Christmas, but I’m happy to know that they weren’t store-bought cookies this last year. They were, sometimes, in recent years. This year, she found the energy somewhere. That consoles me almost as much as knowing it was one big stroke that took her, instead of all the tiny ones that got her mother.

Just over a day with some brief confusion but mostly unconsciousness. Knowing that helps. Knowing that my grandfather will need easy-to-prepare food in her absence helps a little more.

Time to go cook. It’s a different kind of comfort food.

A Eulogy in Food

Atheists Talk–The Humanism of Star Trek

The Humanism of the Star Trek Universe: Scott Lohman and Robert Price
Atheists Talk #0060, Sunday March 8, 2009

Gene Roddenberry convinced the executives at Desilu Studios that a show about exploring space would appeal to a mass audience. They funded a weekly series for three beautiful years, and it turns out he was partially right. The show was not a ratings giant until it went into syndication and cartoons some five years after it had been canceled. From there it fostered a “Big Bang” of cultural infusion. Movies, fan fiction, spinoff series and “cons” exploded the concepts of Star Trek into our society.

Is it the underlying humanist message which infuses the Star Trek Universe that has led to its huge popularity as a cultural phenomenon? Robert Price and Scott Lohman will spend some time on our airwaves examining the issues of humanism in the Star Trek Universe and science fiction’s role in teaching us about ourselves.

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Directed by Mike Haubrich. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan. Interview by Scott Lohman.

Podcast Coming Soon!
Write a review of Atheists Talk

Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call the studio at 952-946-6205 or email us at [email protected].

Atheists Talk–The Humanism of Star Trek

Scribbling in the Margins

Ever have one of those days where you need to carefully swallow around your tonsils? Yeah, it’s one of those. Oh, and my grandmother is in the ICU. Whee!

Luckily, I have prepared…something for you over at Quiche Moraine. I used to know what it was supposed to be, but I got sick, which shuts my brain down, before I finished it. As in, I completely forgot to link to it until Greg did. Did I mention whee?

Go tell me whether it still makes any sense, please.

Perfectionism is only one behavior that’s encouraged in art but needs to be set aside if the artist wants to be fully accepted in “polite society.” Artists need the obsessiveness to see a project through with little feedback (or despite feedback). They need enough pride to believe that their ideas are worth executing. They need to be mercurial enough to suit their thinking to a new and very different project from their last. They need to ask uncomfortable questions and set aside polite fictions. They need to be willing to upset people. They need to be willing to manipulate their audience.

In many ways, art is antisocial behavior.

Scribbling in the Margins

The Short Form

This week has been hella busy, which starts to make micro-blogging look appealing. So I thought I’d spend just over a day tracking what kind of stuff I’d produce (admittedly noninteractively) if I were on Twitter.


  • I <3 Kai Ryssdal: "Bernanke gave us another whopper today." *That's* financial reporting.
  • 1st MN female wrestler at state: “Makes me sad that some of the boys don’t want to wrestle me cause they don’t want a girl to beat them.”
  • A day without an iPod. How do I do that again?
  • Want me to be productive? Give me a computer that boots in less than 10 minutes and bandwidth to access all this data I have to deal with.
  • Spam titled “Greedings.” How appropriate.
  • Apparently, hitting play on my iPod is how I signal getting back to work. I’m completely nonproductive without it.
  • Mike, love you dearly, but please stop saying my name when I can’t hear the rest of what you’re talking about.
  • The Dawkins crowd makes me feel distinctly middle aged. Students, gray hair, very few people in between. And I think I know them all.
  • They got a kick-ass ASL interpreter for this. She’s really into it and not more than a couple seconds behind.
  • How sad to be denied poetic language because someone has a vested interest in misunderstanding you.
  • First half of Dawkins’ lecture was obviously a work in progress. Second half’s much better. Might just be that he’s talking subversion.
  • Click, click. Click, click, click go the connections in the brain. Not the ones Dawkins is aiming for, but oh, well.
  • Q: If we’re this adaptable, can we adapt to seeing IR? A: The brain is the flexible part, silly. (Dawkins much more patient than I.)
  • Oh, these are baaad questions, mixed in with fanboy ramblings. Someone help us!
  • Heh. Questioner says, “You got science in my politics!” *Not* the same as politics in science, dude. Greg leans over. “Concern troll.”
  • Yay! Finally met Amused Muse.
  • Ooh, and a 10-minute reboot this morning because an application closed and can’t be reopened. May I please have a real computer?

Hmm. Yeah, the super short form might not be my long suit.

The Short Form

Too Good to Keep to Myself

I’ve given him almost a week, but DuWayne still hasn’t posted this link to some of his music on his own blog, just in the comments on mine. So rather than assume he’ll think to post it in the middle of travels and school, I’ll just tell you myself: Go check it out.

The first one, which you are free to ignore, is only with us, because someone recorded the show where it was first played, thus the lyrics were actually captured. Unfortunately, it was rather popular with our friends, so I wasn’t allowed to change it when we did the studio recording…

Good stuff, particularly the last two.

Too Good to Keep to Myself

Why Sci Is Awesome, #276

“I want to send you something. What is your address?”

So I told her, her being Scicurious. She said it would come from The Devil’s Panties, which I should go read, along with Girl Genius. Girl Genius I already read, and Devil’s Panties is fun (though I’m nowhere near current yet). Now I was curious.

I refused to spoil the fun by going to the store and looking around, though, and I’m so glad I didn’t. I wouldn’t have laughed nearly as hard when I opened my mail yesterday.

Yes, those are playing cards of men in kilts being willingly assaulted with leafblowers. Really.

I sent Sci an email that was nothing but giggling. I’m still giggling today.

So, Sci, here’s a picture from the last Scotland trip, just for you. I think you’ll recognize the guy in the middle.

Anybody needs me, I’ll be sitting over there, playing solitaire and giggling.

Why Sci Is Awesome, #276

Too Easy

A friend of mine posted this video on Facebook, a thirteen-year-old kid addressing this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He’s even written a book. I was prepared to be impressed. And I was.

I was utterly blown away by the word salad.

Come on, people. Yeah, he’s a cute kid. Yeah, he has poise. Yeah, he can throw the buzzwords around. But do you really not understand that there was not one bit of content to anything he said?

You want to know what’s wrong with the “conservative” movement in this country? Try the fact that a thirteen-year-old on his way to an audition can engage an audience at the same intellectual level as the movement’s professional thinkers.

Of course, the kid did do one thing better than all the adults at the conference. He left early. Smart boy.

Thanks, Laurie.

Too Easy