Memory

Recently, I read something based on scientific research that completely blew me away! It suggests that memory is not like a Kodak picture frozen in time, as most of us would have thought, but is rather quite unreliable with time.

As the author explains, memories are not recorded in the mind like “video archives”, but are constantly being “actively reconstructed as stories” as they are retold repeatedly over time; every time the story is told and retold, it changes over time. He continues that when we encounter new related experiences, we interpret them in terms of our existing memories, which in turn are transformed by our new experiences.

At this point, I thought “Wow” what are the implications of all this? What does this mean for us as individuals living our lives with all these memories we believe to be real and true!

Well, it turns out that the power of suggestion is a dominating factor in how we recall certain situations and completely false memories can be constructed simply by asking leading questions. For example, in a study where adults watched a car accident video and were subsequently asked if the white car jumped the red light, they immediately responded that there was no white car. However, several weeks later when the same participants were asked the same question, most of them replied “yes”. The mere mention of the white car in the initial questioning had now become incorporated in their memories.

How scary is that I thought! But it continues…our brain even invents scenarios that we believe to be true! Piaget, a well known scientist/psychologist recalls just such an episode. As a child his nanny recounted a false abduction where she apparently fought off intruders that wanted to kidnap Piaget. When asked, the child recounts the whole episode with great detail (it never happened). Another great authority on memory, Elizabeth Loftus, at her uncle’s suggestion, recounts the day she found her drowned mother in the pool as a teenager. Turns out, however, that it was the aunt who found the mother!

Loftus said, “The most horrifying idea is that what we believe with all our hearts in not necessarily the truth.”

After reading all this, I ran down to the basement, where my daughter a student in social work/law at McGill was studying, and shared this astounding information with her. Inevitably, I was flabbergasted by the implications of this for Law and how all is based on testimony and eye witness memories!

Bottom line for me was, “How can we ever believe anything we hear or remember?” Make of it what you will!