Monday, December 08, 2003

'We Can Implant Entirely False Memories'

No, this eerie line is not a quotation from a scene between Inner Party member O'Brien and the protagonist Winston Smith in the notorious Room 101 of Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, but rather the title of a story concerning psychologist Elizabeth Loftus in the British newspaper The Guardian.

Dr. Loftus, the author of The Myth of Repressed Memory, conducts an experiment on the unwitting former star of the TV series M*A*S*H*, Alan Alda:

" In his new guise as host of a science series on American TV, he was exploring the subject of memory. The researchers showed him round, and afterwards took him for a picnic in the park. By the time he came to leave, he had developed a dislike of hard-boiled eggs based on a memory of having made himself sick on them as a child - something that never happened."

The idea that an intelligent adult could be manipulated into to believing in a relatively short period a childhood memory that never existed sent shivers down my spine. The whole issue of epistemology – how do we know what we know – is thrown into sharp relief. And, just exactly what kind of memories are we carrying with us that are totally erroneous, which brings me to a second scary article I read today in the New York Times, entitled TV and Movie Characters Sell Childrens Snacks, a critique of the growing role of product placements in movies and television shows and their influence on children.

I was recently asked to write a piece concerning what I remembered about November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was only ten years old, yet I seem to remember it as clearly as if it were only a few years ago rather than forty. But, in trying to recall events from that period while trying to filter out the ongoing onslaught of influences that have come along since, I made a startling discovery. Yes, the memory of seeing my mother standing at the door and waving me inside while tears streamed down her face is indelibly marked on my consciousness, but I also found I could recite several of the jingles from cigarette commercials from that era. For those of you too young to remember, the last cigarette commercial (for Virginia Slims) was broadcast on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show - 11:59pm on January 1, 1971. (I had to look that up.)

More telling is the fact that I can remember LS/MFT (Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco) and can still hum the tune. And, I am still smoking 34 years later.


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