Marcia K. Johnson

Photo of Marcia K. Johnson
Computer and Cognitive Science
Benjamin Franklin Medal

Yale University │ New Haven, Connecticut


For developing innovative models of human memory with applications in psychology, brain science, human development, and our understanding of the malleability of memory in real-world settings.

Can you tell the difference between a memory rooted in a real-life experience versus one you had in a dream? Or an original thought and something you overheard? Marcia Johnson says you can’t. Not always, that is. Where reality and imagination seem black and white, this Yale psychology professor finds shades of gray. Where facts are paramount, even a measure of unchecked confidence in your memories can stretch the truth by a mile. Johnson provides a framework for understanding how our memories from different sources can be confused, and the cognitive processes that allow us to function in the world despite imperfect memory. Her theories on “reality and source monitoring” clarify mechanisms by which we attribute memories to sources—sometimes the wrong source—and have broad implications for areas such as eyewitness testimony, unintentional plagiarism, memory development in children, changes in cognition associated with aging, and hallucinations, confabulation and delusions in psychopathology and brain-damaged patients. Johnson’s extraordinary body of research, derived from rigorous experimentation and neuroimaging, using functional MRI, sheds light on these and other domains. Our memories are so fundamental to our personal identities and understanding memory so vast in its implications for society that Johnson’s research is relevant to us all. 

What is the relation of our perceptions, memories and beliefs to reality? Marcia Johnson confronted this question during her freshman year of college when she recounted to friends an event from her early childhood when the family car had a flat tire on a trip during a California drought. She described her father taking the tire to be repaired and her sister going to a farmhouse for water while she waited with her mother and brother in the car. She vividly remembered the farmhouse, and the woman in the kitchen who provided the water. She also remembered the guilt she felt when the family didn’t save any water for her father. Her parents verified the flat tire story but, to her surprise, said that after her father left, the rest of the family never left the car. Imagining a way to get a drink of water as a child was experienced by Johnson as a detailed, accurate memory when she described the event years later.

The disparity between her memory and reality prompted many questions that would later form the basis of Johnson’s career and establish her as a world-renowned authority on the cognitive processes underlying memory and thought. As her career unfolded, Johnson first devised creative behavioral tasks to track down these elusive processes, and then became an early advocate of brain imaging as a means to further expand knowledge in cognitive science. The resulting research and theory from Johnson’s lab advanced our understanding of mind and brain, providing insight into fundamental issues in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, clinical science, social psychology, developmental psychology, and the changes in cognition that occur with normal aging.

A native of California, Johnson was educated by the state’s public schools and public colleges. She received both her B.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley and joined the faculty at Stony Brook University (1970 to 1985), Princeton (1985 to 2000), and Yale (2000 to 2016). She entered the field when prominent models of memory depicted memory as an information processing system in which what we see or hear is first briefly stored in a short-term memory and then, depending on a number of factors, may be transferred to a relatively permanent long-term memory, or may be lost from the system. Although these models could account for many aspects of memory, they did not address the role of imagination and interpretation in remembering. They did not provide traction for asking why, as in Johnson’s own false memory experience, people sometimes mistake what they imagined as something that had actually happened.

At Stony Brook, Johnson and another new assistant professor, John Bransford, investigated the role of interpretation in memory. In one study, when people heard a story that included the sentence, “The spy threw the secret document into the fireplace just in time since 30 seconds longer would have been too late,” they sometimes falsely remembered hearing, “the spy burned the secret document.” They had inferred that the spy intended to destroy the document when the spy may have intended to hide the document behind the wood in a cold fireplace. Inferences based on the listener’s prior knowledge of fireplaces and beliefs about the intentions of spies affected their memory. Other studies showed the critical role that prior knowledge plays not only in how information is interpreted, but whether it is remembered at all.

Johnson then focused on a fundamental dilemma. How can we explain why we sometimes accurately distinguish the source of a memory (correctly recognizing an event as having been experienced or having been imagined) and sometimes fail to do so? In fact, how do we distinguish the source of any mental experience, for example, a dream from waking events, whether we did something or only intended to, or if we read something or heard about it? Empirical studies and theoretical developments in Johnson’s lab, especially with collaborators Carol Raye of Barnard College, Shahin Hashtroudi of George Washington University, and Stephen Lindsay of the University of Victoria, led to the Source Monitoring Framework. A key idea is that we make judgments about our subjective experience based on differences in the profiles of features that different sources such as vision, audition, dreaming, or imagining, have. For example, although perception usually yields more visual and contextual details than imagination, their profiles overlap, sometimes resulting in mistakenly thinking an imagination was a perception, as in Johnson’s flat tire memory.

In a second model, the Multiple Entry, Modular memory system (MEM), Johnson proposed a general model consisting of component processes underlying cognition and memory. Research prompted by MEM and the Source Monitoring Framework has, for example, compared the patterns of brain activity arising from perception and imagination, identifying where they overlap, and how patterns of brain activity relate to subjective vividness. Other critical issues addressed with brain imaging include how features of events become associated, how context and goals affect what features are activated, and identifying the brain regions involved in evaluating the sources of memories. Such findings provide the backdrop for better understanding a wide range of issues, including potential memory contamination in legal and therapy contexts, how stereotypes and self-interest may affect our memory about others, the relation between memory and emotion, changes in cognition during development and normal aging, and disruptions in cognition in brain damaged or clinical patients.

Marcia Johnson is currently Sterling Professor Emerita at Yale University. She is recipient of numerous awards, including the Association for Psychological Science (APS) Psychological Science Mentor Award (2019), the Cognitive Neuroscience Society Fred Kavli Distinguished Career Contributions Award in Cognitive Neuroscience (2017), the American Psychological Foundation Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in the Science of Psychology (2011), the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (2006), and the APS William James Fellow Award (2006).

Information as of March 2019