In Scientific American (September 1997, vol. 277, #3, pp. 70-75), Loftus explains how memories can become corrupted:
Research is beginning to give us an understanding of how false memories of complete, emotional and self-participatory experiences are created in adults. First, there are social demands on individuals to remember; for instance, researchers exert some pressure on participants in a study to come up with memories. Second, memory construction by imagining events can be explicitly encouraged when people are having trouble remembering. And, finally, individuals can be encouraged not to think about whether their constructions are real or not. Creation of false memories is most likely to occur when these external factors are present, whether in an experimental setting, in a therapeutic setting or during everyday activities.In a CBS newsreport on the subject, Charles Osgood says:
False memories are constructed by combining actual memories with the content of suggestions received from others. During the process, individuals may forget the source of the information. This is a classic example of source confusion, in which the content and the source become dissociated.
According to this theory, memories are not stored like snapshots, but are instead like sketches that are altered and added to every time they are called up. Loftus has shown subjects who are given false information about an event or scene tend to incorporate it into their memories, and "recall" the false information as a part of their original memory even two weeks later. In other experiments, subjects asked to imagine scenarios can then become convinced that the imagined scenario is a real memory.
In the November 2003 issue of American Psychologist, Loftus says:
But could one create an entire memory for an event that never happened? My first attempt to do this used a procedure whereby participants were given short narrative descriptions of childhood events and encouraged to try to remember those events. While participants believed that all of the descriptions were true and had been provided by family members, one was actually a pseudoevent that had not occurred. In this study, approximately 25% of participants were led to believe, wholly or partially, that at age 5 or 6 they had been lost in a shopping mall for an extended time, were highly upset, and were ultimately rescued by an elderly person and reunited with their family (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). Many added embellishing details to their accounts(Make-Believe Memories, p. 869)At the end of the above article, Loftus concludes: People’s memories are not only the sum of all that they have done, but there is more to them: The memories are also the sum of what they have thought, what they have been told, what they believe. Who we are may be shaped by our memories, but our memories are shaped by who we are and what we have been led to believe.(p. 869).
How does Loftus' research relate to the supposed eyewitness testimony found in the New Testament? Many apologists, such as Josh McDowell, have argued that either the disciples were lying or the events really happened. These apologists maintain that since no one would die for something they know to be false, then the events, including the resurrection of Jesus, must have actually taken place.
Loftus has shown that its not that simple. People can believe things happened that didn't really happen. These memories can be just as real and as strong for the individuals as events that did occur. Memory is a complex phenomena that is only now beginning to be understood.