July 29, 2013

“Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed the ability to implant mice with false memories. The memories can be easily induced and are just as strong as real memories, physiological proof of something psychologists and lawyers have known for years.

“The findings are a serious matter. According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness testimony played a role in 75 percent of guilty verdicts eventually overturned by DNA testing after people spent years in prison. Some prisoners may even have been executed due to false eyewitness testimony. It was not because the witnesses were lying. They were just wrong, said Susumu Tonegawa, a molecular biologist and the lead author in the MIT study.

“In the longest criminal trial in American history, the McMartin family, who operated a preschool in California, was charged with multiple incidents of child abuse. After seven years and $15 million in prosecution expenses, some charges were dropped and the defendants were acquitted of others when it became clear some of the accusations were based on false memories, some possibly planted by childrens’ therapists.”

– From “Scientists Produce False Memories In Mice” by Joel N. Shurkin, Inside Science News Service (July 25, 2013)

The same day’s Guardian of London adds this response from Chris French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London:

“Memory… is a reconstructive process which involves building a specific memory from fragments of real memory traces of the original event but also possibly including information from other sources.”

“Information from other sources” – that is, from prosecution therapists – was what contaminated the memories of child witnesses in cases such as McMartin and Little Rascals.