Why our Memory is Unreliable

Memory is not a filing cabinet nor a videotape but fragmentary, malleable, and untrustworthy. Hence the introduction of radical new eyewitness testimony rules.

What's the Latest Development?


The New Jersey Supreme Court this week released radical new rules on the use and misuse of eyewitness testimony. The ruling has profound legal implications, making it much easier for defendants to dispute eyewitness evidence in court. The ruling also reflects decades of scientific research on human memory and the core idea—which can be traced back to research by Elizabeth Loftus—that human memory is untrustworthy.

What's the Big Idea?

Loftus’s legal reasoning has always been based solidly on her lab science, which demonstrated how easy it is to distort someone’s memory—or to implant original, and completely false, memories. This has potential for good yet also raises philosophical and ethical issues. For example, Loftus has successfully implanted false memories of disliking certain foods, which suggests the possibility of implanting in obese teenagers’ minds the idea that they dislike fattening foods. Critics are already howling but Loftus’s view is: “What’s worse—obesity or a little, teeny bit of false memory?”

The world and workforce need wisdom. Why don’t universities teach it?

Universities claim to prepare students for the world. How many actually do it?

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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Many university mission statements do not live up to their promise, writes Ben Nelson, founder of Minerva, a university designed to develop intellect over content memorization.
  • The core competencies that students need for success—critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and cross-cultural understanding, for example—should be intentionally taught, not left to chance.
  • These competencies can be summed up with one word: wisdom. True wisdom is the ability to apply one's knowledge appropriately when faced with novel situations.
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This is what the world will look like, 250 million years from now

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Surprising Science

To us humans, the shape and location of oceans and continents seems fixed. But that's only because our lives are so short.

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A new study may help us better understand how children build social cognition through caregiver interaction.

Personal Growth
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  • Researchers hope the data will spur future studies to discover what role caregiver imitation plays in social cognition development.
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    An elderly man runs during his morning exercises at the promenade on the Bund along the Huangpu Rive the Bund in Shanghai on May 18, 2017.

    Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images
    Surprising Science
    • Researchers at UT Southwestern observed a stark improvement in memory after cardiovascular exercise.
    • The year-long study included 30 seniors who all had some form of memory impairment.
    • The group of seniors that only stretched for a year did not fair as well in memory tests.
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