The false memory topic has been visited recently by Scientific American blogger Steven Ross Pomeroy in “How to Instill False Memories.”  He describes how easy it is to instill false memories in a targeted individual who is a friend practically as if you were following a recipe. Why would anyone want to do this to their friends?
Pomeroy starts out by writing about how everyone enjoys a practical joke. After describing several practical jokes which you can read for yourself in the piece, he presents a gag that uses science instead of stink bombs. He proceeds with “How to implant false memories in your friends, in four steps:” and it is disturbing.
Pomeroy quotes Carl Sagan from his book, The Demon-Haunted World as saying that memory can be contaminated and that false memories can be implanted. He writes as examples “…people who, at the urging of therapists or hypnotists, genuinely start to believe that they’d been abducted by UFOs or falsely remember being abused as a child.” As I read this I am thinking, here we go again but this article is different. He is advocating instilling false memories in friends, as a prank. Pause for a few seconds, maybe a minute and just let that last sentence just sink in. Wow.
The first step describes selecting a friend who is prone to suggestion; this person should be known to you for at least five years, and you have had shared experiences with this person. Let us break this down for a moment and think about these criteria for instilling possible false memories in alien abductees. What is so interesting to me are the criteria that you have to have known this friend for at least five years and have shared experiences with this person. This scenario doesn’t fit at all with what we know about people who report alien abductions. Just think of all the cases we know where this just doesn’t make any sense. Did Dr. Simon know Betty and Barney Hill for at least five years before they came to see him and they were all good friends?
The next step described by Pomeroy is to fabricate a memory that had taken place at least a year in the past, must not be complicated, and not “engender strong feelings of emotion.” This is incredible. So you need a simple and non-emotional fabricated memory for this to work.
Alien abduction can:
- Take place at any time
- Definitely engender extremely strong feelings of emotion
- Be intensely complicated
Yet people still cling to the notion that alien abduction memories are so incredibly easy to implant into hapless victims who seek therapists for help.
Pomeroy writes that as “fake memories grow in complexity and specificity, implantation grows progressively harder, though not impossible.” He goes on to describe that “researchers at Western Washington University succeeded in getting subjects to recall details about accidentally spilling a bowl of punch on the parents of the bride at a wedding reception.” This is just putrid. Spilling punch on a bride at a wedding reception doesn’t even come close to facing the incredible face of the unknown such as alien abduction squarely in the face.
Elizabeth Loftus is mentioned as writing a paper on the punch spilling incident. Loftus is also known for her research on the “Lost in a Shopping Mall” study. Her research has been widely criticized by therapeutic professionals over the years.  There are many articles on this and papers on her research can be easily found on Google.
Pomeroy goes on to write about how to start convincing the “target” to remember the implanted false memory. One comment is made about how “emotions tend to make people remember associated events more vividly.” He cites how researchers at the University of British Columbia succeeded in convincing 26% of their subjects that they were victims of a vicious animal attack from childhood, but he does mention that this research team used “sophisticated methods” in accomplishing this. From the previous mention of Loftus’ work and how this methodology has been shredded over the years, I would shed doubt on this other report until further research can be done. And by the way, you don’t think getting abducted by non-human beings doesn’t produce extreme emotional distress?
According to Pomeroy, choosing a childhood memory will give you the best odds of success because it happened so long ago. His comment that since this is a “practical joke” that you should choose something “that’s comical and not potentially life-scarring.” He also encourages “doctoring photos” to support the ruse. He encourages collaborators to participate in the deception. I believe with friends like these, you are in big trouble.
Pomeroy encourages peer pressure and suggests phrases to use to break down the victim. I am beginning to wonder what this person was like in high school; just saying.
Pomeroy ends his article by admitting that in the lab researchers succeed less than half of the time when trying to implant false memories. But he encourages the reader to try it. In citing references like Loftus and his seeming lack of ethical concerns about this type of hoaxing behavior, my opinion is this is wrong, dangerous, and unethical.
I feel disgusted when abductees are accused of just being victims of false memory and delusions and this guest science blogger thinks implanting false memories is all a joke in good fun. He encourages this behavior of hoaxing as a great gag to play on your friends. He is encouraging people to tamper with other people’s memories. Reading this article really turned my stomach.
What I encourage readers to do is read this article in its entirety and also read the comments which are accumulating for the piece at Scientific American. Many of the comments made are from professional therapists and it is fascinating regarding what they have to say about the research quoted in the blog and the behavior regarding the purposeful attempts to instill false memories.
My final parting thoughts:
Ignorance should not be a basis for good science and neither should cruelty.
 Steven Ross Pomeroy, Scientific American,http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/02/19/how-to-instill-false-memories/
 Elizabeth Loftus , Lost in a Shopping Mall, http://users.owt.com/crook/memory/