Memory Malleability: A Secret of the Ooze

Elizabeth Loftus and Daredevil know our distinct recollections can be errors.

Posted May 17, 2018

Memory is an essential yet undependable thing. “As an attorney, I can tell you without hesitation that the most unreliable witness in any circumstance is memory,” Matt Murdock muses in Daredevil #6 (2014). “The human brain is spectacular at playing tricks on itself to help people ‘remember’ what they want to remember. Sworn witnesses will bet everything, with all sincerity and zero doubt, swearing that a green light was red or that they heard sounds they couldn’t possibly have.” 

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"The Barn" by Fyodor Vasilyev (1868).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus built a career demonstrating the fallibility of eyewitness memory (Zagorski, 2005). During one study in which Loftus (1975) showed video of an auto accident, half her viewers (experimental group) were asked how fast the car was going when it passed a barn along the road. Those in the other half (control group) were asked the same question but without any mention of the barn. A week later, a portion of the experimental group’s members recalled seeing the barn while almost none of the control group members did. There was no barn.

People who have read 1964’s original Daredevil #1 might recall seeing the canister that falls off the truck and injures young Matt or the radioactive waste that gives him supersenses (thus enabling him to become the superhero Daredevil later on). The scene, however, shows no such container or goo. Text refers vaguely to such details, as if the writer added them in afterthought, when one witness to the accident declares, “But a cylinder fell from the truck. It struck his face! Is—is it radioactive??”  Any readers who recall seeing cylinder or ooze in that particular story either vividly imagined them or retroactively inserted them into the memory after these elements appeared in one of the story’s many retellings and variations—e.g., Daredevil #53 (1969); #164 (1980); Daredevil: The Man without Fear #1 (1993); Marvel’s Daredevil, episode 1-1, “Into the Ring” (April 10, 2015); Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 (1984); What If? #28 (1981). Usually it’s a glowing radioactive isotope, not the liquid depicted on screen. 

Adult Matt knows a bit about why this happens: “That’s just basic neuroscience. Recollections fade, like photos left in the sunlight.”

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Faded photo of early 20th century schoolchildren.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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A version of this original post will be reprinted as a sidebar in Daredevil Psychology: The Devil You Know.

References

Loftus, E. F. (1975). Leading questions and the eyewitness report. Cognitive Psychology, 7(4), 560-572.

Zagorski, N. (2005). Profile of Elizabeth Loftus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102(39), 13721-13723.