The Science of Memory


As readers of this blog know, eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing. More than three decades of social science research has shown that human memory is fallible and that reforms to eyewitness identification procedures can reduce misidentifications. Could neuroscience also hold some clues to the mystery of memory?

A recent article in Seed Magazine reported on a unique multi-university project underway to explore the intersections of neuroscience and the law. A group of 40 neuroscientists, lawyers and philosophers are working together to examine the biology behind memory and to answer the question of how memory works.

One reason that such technologies are so alluring is that people tend to be poor judges of the quality of their memories. The circumstances in which eyewitnesses find themselves might render their recollections particularly untrustworthy, says Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of California and a pioneer in the field of eyewitness research. “When it comes to brief episodes of memory, like in many criminal cases, poor lighting, passage of time, biased or suggestive questioning all can produce an erroneous memory,” she says.

Scientists working on the project are careful not to promise that their research will lead to new forms of evidence, however.

“We can tell surprisingly well what people are thinking from brain scans,” says (Princeton Psychology Professor Ken) Norman. “But if you’re going to convict someone, ‘better than chance’ is not good enough.” (Standford Law Prof. Hank) Greely also believes that neuroscientific information may be unduly persuasive to people.

Read the full story here

. (SEED Magazine, 6/13/09)

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