In the time-bending blockbuster Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character devises an elaborate method of mental manipulation: implanting an idea in another person’s head so that the recipient actually believes the idea is his own.[1]  The reality of implanted ideas is nearly as strange as this movie.  I would guess that lawyers are generally suspicious of witnesses’ memories—and rightly so—but perhaps most lawyers aren’t aware of just how easily memories can be manipulated.  Could a person, for instance, be made to believe she had committed a significant crime?  An assault?  How about assault with a weapon?

An article I read recently neatly summarizes the work of some of the noted researchers in this area of memory manipulation.[2]  Through interviews, these researchers have convinced regular, healthy-minded people that they had committed a criminal assault, among other crimes.[3] None of this is likely to surprise the criminal defense lawyers in the room.  However, I don’t want them to leave now thinking we’re going to rehash what should be fairly common knowledge in the bar, so we’ll dive deeper.  The theoretical brain mechanics behind this sort of manipulation is the subject of this month’s blog.

A false memory, as it turns out, has its own locus in the brain.  When scientists watch a false memory light up an fMRI, they see blood flowing strongly in the frontoparietal region of the brain—the area scientists associate with our sense of familiarity.  Real memory, however, lights up the hippocampus.[4]  It’s this strength of the familiar with the actual that makes false memories so easy to come by.  Researchers call this close link the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm.  The DRM paradigm is easy to explain.  Suppose I gave you a list of words to memorize and all the words had a theme:  bat, ball, glove, pitch, base, dugout, catcher, etc.  The paradigm suggests that there’s a good chance you’ll recall, with some confidence, that the words hit or strike were on the list.[5]  They clearly were not.  Memories of events are also thematic.

To explain the DRM paradigm, researchers have proposed a system of memory called “fuzzy trace theory.”  Within “fuzzy trace theory” is the proposal that human beings have two kinds of memory: verbatim and gist.  Verbatim is quick, easily recalled detail.  I can clearly remember the name “Jules Epstein” as matching the bright, smiling fellow who helms Temple’s advocacy program and the listserv that delivered this blog post.  Having seen him recently, I can describe, with detail, what he looks like.  Where I get “fuzzy” is in the gist memory of how, precisely, we came upon the idea of this blog—apart from the fact that Jules said to me something akin to, “Let’s write a blog!”  I have some ideas of how our conversation about this blog went and I could probably spin you a yarn on how it all transpired.  Gist memory, says the researchers, has a “much more powerful influence after a delay” and, thus, we rely more on gist memory as we age.[6]  All isn’t a total loss with age, however.  We become “meaning makers” and work in these familiar associations of memories.  Though we are likely to insert words into a list that weren’t there, we are, with age, more likely to remember the whole list—so our accuracy suffers, but we’re at least still in the game.[7]

And, so, with the spark of a refreshed memory, I now remember how Jules and I came upon the idea for this blog.  He struck up a brief conversation with me on an overseas plane flight headed to Los Angeles.  Our flight attendant in first class had poured me a glass of water.  Feeling rather tired after just a few sips, I dozed off and had a very long, hard sleep with vivid dreams that my father had one last wish for me…

[1] Inception (Warner Bros. Pictures 2010).

[2] Lindsay Dodgson, Our Brains Sometimes Create ‘False Memories’ – But Science Suggests We Could Be Better Off This Way, BUSINESS INSIDER INDIA (Dec. 19, 2017, 2:06 PM),

[3] E.g., Julia Shaw & Stephen Porter, Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime, 26 Psychological Science Mar. 1, 2015, at 291.

[4] Dodgson, supra note 2.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.