The Remarkable Memory of Geoffrey R. Loftus

The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, while assessing whether an eye-witness could remember a face, seen seven and half years ago for ninety seconds only, relied on the pioneering work of Geoffrey R. Loftus. It had the following to say in Pargan Singh v. State of Punjab, 2014 (10) SCALE 229:

Scientific understanding of how memory works is described by Geoffrey R. Loftus while commenting upon the Judgment dated January 16, 2002 rendered in the case of Javier Suarez Medina v. Janie Cockrell by United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit in Case No. 01-10763. He has explained that a generally accepted theory of this process was first explicated in detail by Neisser [1967] and has been continually refined over the intervening quarter-century. The basic tenets of the theory are as follows.

Memory does not work like a video recorder. Instead, when a person witnesses some complex event, such as a crime, or an accident, or a wedding, or a basketball game, he or she acquires fragments of information from the environment. These fragments are then integrated with other information from other sources. Examples of such sources are: information previously stored in memory that leads to prior expectations about what will happen, and information – both information from external sources, and information generated internally in the form of inferences – that is acquired after the event has occurred. The result of this amalgamation of information is the person’s memory for the event. Sometimes this memory is accurate, and other times it is inaccurate. An initial memory of some event, once formed, is not ‘cast in concrete’. Rather, a memory is a highly fluid entity that changes, sometimes dramatically, with the passage of time. Every time a witness thinks about some event – revisits his or her memory of it – the memory changes in some fashion. Such changes take many forms. For instance, a witness can make inferences about how things probably happened, and these inferences become part of the memory. New information that is consistent with the witness’s beliefs about what must have happened can be integrated into the memory. Details that do not seem to fit a coherent story of what happened can be stripped away. In short, the memory possessed by the witness at some later point (e.g., when the witness testifies in court) can be quite different from the memory that the witness originally formed at the time of the event. Memory researchers study how memory works using a variety of techniques. A common technique is to try to identify circumstances under which memory is inaccurate versus circumstances under which memory is accurate. These efforts have revealed four major sets of circumstances under which memory tends to be inaccurate. The first two sets of circumstances involve what is happening at the time the to-be-remembered event is originally experienced, while the second two sets of circumstances involve things that happen after the event has ended. The first set of circumstances involves the state of the environment at the time the event is experienced. Examples of poor environmental conditions include poor lighting, obscured or interrupted vision, and long viewing distance. To the degree that environmental conditions are poor, there is relatively poor information on which to base an initial perception and the memory that it engenders to begin with. This will ultimately result in a memory that is at best incomplete and, as will be described in more detail below, is at worst systematically distorted. The second set of circumstances involves the state of the observer at the time the event is experienced. Examples of sub-optimal observer states include high stress, perceived or directly inflicted violence, viewing members of different races, and diverted attention. As with poor environmental factors, this will ultimately result in a memory that is at best incomplete and, as will be described in more detail below, is at worst systematically distorted. The third set of circumstances involves what occurs during the retention interval that intervenes between the to-be-remembered event and the time the person tries to remember aspects of the event. Examples of memory-distorting problems include a lengthy retention interval, which leads to forgetting, and inaccurate information learned by the person during the retention interval that can get incorporated into the person’s memory for the original event. The fourth set of circumstances involves errors introduced at the time of retrieval, i.e., at the time the person is trying to remember what he or she experienced. Such problems include biased tests and leading questions. They can lead to a biased report of the person’s memory and can also potentially change and bias the memory itself.”

The Declaration of Geoffrey R. Loftus in the Case of Javier Suarez Medina