Memories real and imagined

I watched a TED talk by Elizabeth Loftus, a researcher who studies when people remember wrong. She started with an example of a guy who was convicted of rape based on the absolute certainty that he was the perpetrator, but he wasn’t. Later they found the real guy.

Memory is not like a recording device.  It is more like Wikipedia.  It is reconstructed each time and can be changed by us AND by others.  Suggestive questions can cause memories to change and sometimes create whole new ones. Memory can also be contaminated by other witnesses.

Maybe twenty years ago, I read a book she wrote called, “Witness for the Defense,” where she talked about some cases she worked on. Of course, it is not always true that eyewitnesses get it wrong. But we put too much emphasis on eyewitness testimony and way too much influence on their supposed degree of certainty.  Expressing great confidence in a memory does not mean it is accurate. In fact, in some cases certainty interferes with accuracy. 

It reminds me of a joke.  At a trial a lawyer asks a witness, “How far were you from the scene?”  To which the witness says, “Precisely seven feet and three inches.” The lawyer retorts, “Ha, how can you be so certain?”  The response, “I knew some jackass lawyer would ask me that, so I measured it and wrote it down.”

In the 1990, there was a big scandal with “recovered memories.” This often had to do with supposedly remembered long ago abuse.  Relatives, friends, coworkers and others were accused, almost always w/o physical evidence.  In many of these situations some form of psychotherapy had actually created these memories. It is unlikely that the therapists did this on purpose, but they were too ready to accept and even be proactive.  Often they were driven by an ideology that assumed widespread abuse and wanted to expose the evils.  Loftus tells about the trouble she had when she pointed out the fallacy of these techniques. She was attacked by organized interests and even sued by a woman who “remembered” falsely that she has been abused as a child. During the 1990s, this repressed memory fiasco was very powerful and fraught with emotions.  It took great courage to stand against it and be accused of attacking abused women and children.  

Can a false memory really affect future behavior? Probably. People cannot distinguish the false memories from real ones and since we routinely act on what we remember, false memory is important.  In fact, a high percentage of our memories are wrong in many details and some are just plain wrong.  We remember things that happened to others as happening to us, or maybe the reverse and we often get mixed up about who did what to whom and when.    

You can see an ethical problem with this beyond the obvious one of eyewitness testimony wrongly convicting innocent people.  What we are as people is largely dependent on what happened to us and even more on what we remember about what happened to us.  Might it not be good to forget a traumatic event or alter it so that it was not so traumatic, maybe add a part where we came out on top of the bad situation, turning the memory from one of defeat and depression into one of triumph and overcoming?

I know that I have done this with my kids, myself and others; at least that’s what I remember. I didn’t think of it as planting false memories but rather as interpreting and reinterpreting. Usually, there are different, maybe conflicting memories and when you sort them out you really are choosing and altering “the facts.”  For example, in a stressful situation you are likely to feel both frightened and determined.  Remembering mostly the fear leads to one vision of yourself, while emphasizing the determination a very different one.  

You can extrapolate this to the wider world.  I have long wrested with the question about whether history is created by historians or if historians merely record it with greater or lesser accuracy and precision.  Of course it is both, but I have been leaning more and more toward the creation theory with the prosaic analogy of a cook on a show called “Chopped” that Chrissy likes to watch.  Chopped is an elimination contest.  The contestants get a bunch of ingredients.  They have to use only those ingredients and they have to use all of them, but they combine them as they believe most appropriate.  All are valid, but they taste, look and are very different.  

I have digressed from the TED talk and from Loftus.  I suggest you watch it and remember just because somebody tells you something they believe with confidence and passion doesn’t mean it is true, even if they tell a compelling story with precise details.  Precision and accuracy are not the same, BTW.  We need outside collaboration.

I think we need to apply to ourselves Ronald Reagan’s  the old adage “trust but verify” and, to adapt another old saying, know that it isn’t what we forget that gets us in trouble but it’s what we remember that isn’t so.