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Ethics of Memory Research: The Scientist and Society with Dr. Ashleigh Maxcey

By Erin Morrow

This post is the first in a series featuring interviews that will explore ethical issues surrounding research in memory science. Each interview will highlight a specific theme on this topic with the insights of a research professor in psychology or brain science. The series will consist of five interviews over the span of a year.

Image courtesy of PxHere/Mohamed Hassan

In late May, I sat down virtually with Dr. Ashleigh Maxcey, Senior Lecturer and Research Assistant Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University. In her research, Maxcey investigates the cognitive mechanisms that underlie forgetting, particularly a phenomenon known as induced forgetting in which the researcher can impair an individual’s memory for certain items through the act of retrieving others. In addition to this work, Maxcey is Chair of the Psychology Department Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee at Vanderbilt and co-hosts the Brain Bios Podcast, which spotlights prominent figures in psychology and neuroscience.

We began by discussing Maxcey’s work, probing the ethical implications of research studies that aim to exert influence on memory (i.e., induce forgetting). For instance, how might researchers ensure that their participants are sufficiently aware of the risks associated with changes in the accessibility of their memories? Although the Maxcey Lab deals in memories that subjects didn’t have prior to walking into the lab—e.g., completely unfamiliar faces—she pondered the consequences of inducing forgetting for different kinds of stimuli, such as those from the deeply personal trove of autobiographical memory. Although the feasibility of impairing access to these items remains questionable at best, Maxcey recalled a student’s interest in creating an app that would take advantage of her forgetting paradigm for such a purpose. These sensitive applications, she stressed, would require closer ethical scrutiny.

However, the conversation soon steered in a different direction. What concerned Maxcey the most and ultimately comprised the majority of our discussion were the ethical roles and obligations of the memory scientist—as well as research scientists more generally—in a societal context. Our dialogue ranged from issues of representation in stimulus banks, to barriers of access to research studies, to the need for judicious communication of memory science to the general public. She saw these as the most pressing and thought-provoking considerations of her work, extending clearly beyond the limited regulatory framework of the Institutional Review Board.

Image courtesy of StockSnap/World Maps
The first question of representation came from the (not-so) mindful use of psychological tools.  Familiar sights to many researchers in the cognitive and affective sciences are large stimulus sets such as the International Affective Picture System (IAPS) and the Open Affective Standardized Image Set (OASIS). These databases, each composed of hundreds of emotional and neutral images scored on valence, arousal, and other factors, are widely used in the memory literature. Maxcey questioned how the normed scores themselves had been gathered; in other words, what populations determined what kind of emotions the images supposedly evoked? Might an image deemed highly negative by one group—e.g., depictions of the military—be experienced differently by another? IAPS in particular has been criticized for its outdatedness and negligible depiction of cultures outside of North America. Although variability in scoring across cultures has been investigated by researchers in non-North American regions such as Brazil (whose study found few differences), scientists must be aware of the implications of  potential variability when working with populations not yet examined. In this way, they must be aware of the social situation and origin of their stimuli, and how data collected with these stimuli impact the ability to generalize findings to certain groups.

Another concern highlighted by Maxcey surrounding the representation of diverse populations lay in the barriers to these individuals’ participation in research, including within her own department. No mystery to psychology researchers is the gross overrepresentation of undergraduate university students in the participant pools for behavioral studies (see some historical context here). Beyond the issue of replicability, Maxcey noted that this leads to an underrepresentation of individuals outside of the predominant age range, race, and socioeconomic status of students at these institutions. Studies of memory are not exempt from this problem, which diminishes the scientific findings overall and potentially limits the benefits that underrepresented populations can reap from research conducted without their participation. Maxcey observed that, although the COVID-19 pandemic has led to some advantages as behavioral testing has gone virtual—such as data collection from a wider geographic sample—these circumstances exclude others, such as those without internet access, at the same time.

Image courtesy of Pixabay/Gerd Altmann

In addition to this digital barrier, Maxcey spoke candidly about a department colleague who works with individuals with schizophrenia who are experiencing homelessness. She explained that as universities transition to different study compensation practices, i.e., from providing participants with cash to directly transferring funds via direct deposit, this population—which includes many without a bank account—is left behind. This example underscores the need for research scientists to be cognizant of who their recruitment and research protocol exclude by design, as well as the unique needs of these individuals (e.g., compassion when a no-show occurs or when potential substance abuse is evident). Others may harbor justifiable distrust in universities and other research institutions. Maxcey discussed her time at Tennessee State University, a historically Black college, during which she learned from researchers who embraced the slow yet valuable process of outreach to minority communities to communicate the importance of their participation in research. She stressed that scientists must evaluate and reevaluate the explanation and advertisement of their studies to ensure their research is inclusive of and beneficial for these underserved populations.

As we entered the latter half of our conversation, Maxcey brought to light yet another case of memory science’s complex relationship with the public. We spoke about the controversial psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and her involvement as a memory expert in the rape trial of Harvey Weinstein. Arguing for the defense, Loftus highlighted the malleability of memory and its vulnerability to suggestion. Maxcey, who interviewed Loftus in December 2019, explained that Loftus maintains she provides impartial information on memory science to anyone who requests it and therefore should not adjudicate who is allowed to receive her expert testimony. Loftus was heavily criticized, however, by those who point out the discrediting impact of her actions on survivors of sexual assault. Loftus’s involvement in the Weinstein trial prompted Maxcey to ask questions about the moral obligations of interfacing with the public as a memory scientist. During the interview, she expressed her support for Loftus’s participation, emphasizing that the accessibility of scientists and their work to the public is critical, even in the face of criticism. Of course, the intimate nature of memory as it relates to our identities and lived experiences can make the application of the available science emotionally-laden and even at times contentious.

To explore these difficulties and encourage discourse on the public role of scientists, Maxcey developed a seminar course to allow first-year undergraduates to debate whether Loftus should have testified in the Weinstein case. Students discussed perspective-taking and the pursuit of ‘truth’ in science, one offering the following: “If Harvey Weinstein is guilty, Elizabeth Loftus’s testimony doesn’t make him innocent.” Clearly, as demonstrated by this lively debate and the wide-ranging views in broader discourse, there remains much to be considered about the delicate relationship of memory experts with those who seek their expertise.

Throughout our discussion of the above themes, Maxcey emphasized her passion for conscious science and conscious science communication. These practices necessitate a research scientist’s awareness of and devotion to representation and equity in their work, even (and perhaps especially) in situations where infringements may not be obvious. Research scientists must also responsibly navigate the social dynamics that come along with holding space as a field expert. As we have seen during the pandemic, public trust in scientists and the science they conduct is both intentionally cultivated and fragile. Lastly, scientists must communicate their research clearly. This includes allowing the public easier access to emerging science—to this end, Maxcey has created the KidsVUe journal to encourage students to simplify their scientific writing while still early in their career. In these ways, the unique challenges and opportunities a memory scientist encounters, she argues, can be traced to a larger theme—one of responsibility to be a mindful contributor to and participant in society.



Erin Morrow is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Emory University majoring in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology. She is the lead research assistant at the Hamann Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, where she conducts memory research and neuroimaging analysis. Erin also holds positions with the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience and the International Neuroethics Society. As she progresses in her career, she hopes to integrate her pursuits in neuroethics with her academic aspirations in research and engagement in volunteerism.

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Morrow, E. (2021). Ethics of Memory Research: The Scientist and Society with Dr. Ashleigh Maxcey. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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