You are here

Impersistence of Memory, Part 2

"I would give these people involved in the debate the benefit of the doubt that it's not political lying," says psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, of the University of California, Irvine, an expert on the reliability of eyewitness testimony. "It's sort of wanting to remember things in a certain way. That's probably why all these people seem so sincere. They may actually believe what they're saying."


"Even if it was my own memory, I'd be skeptical about the details," says Christine Ruva, a psychologist at the University of South Florida. "Memories aren't stored in a data file of fact. Instead, we take all the information we know about the world, we know about ourselves, and we construct something."

["Kerry Debate May Show Fickleness of Memory", originally via AP Science News on Yahoo News; article removed, now link to "Kerry Debate May Show Fickleness of Memory", via Guardian]

Finally, someone other than me has pointed out that it's not such a strange thing for memories of combat to change over time. This slow Saturday night, via the AP Science news feed on Yahoo news, a summary piece on how stress relates to memory. Some hightlights:

You'd think the details would be scorched into a veteran's memory like a cattle brand: ducking gunfire, seeing someone die in battle, bracing against a blast's concussion. Who could forget?

Yet such memories not only blurred over time in one classic psychological study of soldiers, but mutated too. Old recollections faded; new mental pictures took over. Whole new chunks of personal history materialized from the muck of memory.

"People went from, 'Yes, I saw one friend killed,' to 'I saw no friends killed,' to 'I saw two friends killed,' to `I saw three friends killed,'" said Dr. Andy Morgan, a Yale University psychiatrist who helped run the six-year study.


Far from being an indelible recording, human memory is fragile, incomplete, malleable and highly subject to suggestion, researchers have shown in dozens of studies.

Time isn't the only factor that obscures memory. Great stress or danger during an event â?? as in combat â?? appears to gum up the mechanisms of remembrance, perhaps through a hormone rush that temporarily dulls memory-forming areas of the brain.

Later, our own, sometimes incorrect inferences about what happened gain equal footing with what we really saw or heard. The recollections of others, like old war buddies at a reunion, can overwrite our own. [emphasis added]

"Memory doesn't work like a videotape," says Dawn McQuiston-Surrett, a psychologist at Arizona State University West.

...Yale researchers interviewed about 150 [soldiers] at intervals over six years, starting soon after their return from the first war with Iraq in 1991.

They asked the soldiers questions about their experiences, including whether they took incoming gunfire, faced Scud missile attacks and witnessed a friend's death. About 15 percent changed their recall of something significant, like seeing a friend die, the researchers reported.

Some veterans were upset when their own discrepancies were pointed out. Some even asked for help. ""They would say, `Which one is it?' to me," Morgan said. "I'd say, 'I don't know. I wasn't there.'"

Veterans with psychological or emotional problems tended to change their memories more often, the researchers found. But nearly everyone changed recollections over the six years.

Memory experts say a mild state of vigilance during an event boosts its commitment to memory. But being scared for your life, as during a crime or combat, impedes memory.

Other researchers say memories are especially fickle when the events unfolded on a broad stage or in multiple parts. Such recollections are inevitably partial, and a soldier will tend to fill in blanks unconsciously with personal inferences and the memories of others.

In unconsciously remolding memories, people often substitute details that make more sense or enhance their personal self-image, like turning a routine act of soldiering into heroism. People reshape their memories under pressure or encouragement from others.

["Kerry Debate May Show Fickleness of Memory", originally via AP Science News on Yahoo News; article removed, now link to "Kerry Debate May Show Fickleness of Memory", via Guardian]

So here we're looking at emperical verification that people's memories of traumatic events are malleable, and even subject to fabrication. We're looking at verification that it's possible for a group of people -- motivated, say, by hatred for a former comrade -- might convince one another that things happened in a certain way.

This angle of the story should have been discussed literally months ago, because it's obvious, it's non-controversial among people who actually know anything about the field, and it's spectacularly relevant -- and, oh, also because there's a whole lot of arrant nonsense being fronted around this whole issue of behavior under fire. But this touches on a very uncomfortable set of truths, all of which come back to the fact that we do not -- I say again, that we do not, not that we might not -- remember things as they really happened, and that such tools as recall through hypnosis may be worse than useless.

Left unsaid in articles like this: If memories formed during periods of high stress (when "...scared for your life, as during a crime or combat....") are less trustworthy, doesn't that call into question most convictions for violent crime? And is there anyone who dares to point this inconvenient fact out?

Also worth mentioning: One would think that memories formed of George Bush during his time serving in the Alabama Air National Guard would have been formed during "a mild state of vigilance" (e.g. gettign prepared to fly training missions over Alabama), and hence be that much more reliable than the memories of those serving while 'scared for their lives.' And yet, still, nobody remembers serving in Alabama with the President. Curious indeed.

Add new comment