I watched a rerun of a Law and Order last night, and got very exasperated at the way it portrays memory. It got it all wrong, of course. I know this about cop shows, so it may be silly to get exasperated, but I did all the same.
A crucial character was an Iraq war vet working security in a rowdy club, who had undiagnosed PTSD which was triggered by a band setting off fireworks. Throughout the episode he was pushed to think again about the incident and see what else he could remember about it – so, as you would expect with a visual medium, we would get a visual replay of what was supposed to be his memory, and then a zoom and freezeframe on a particular face, which he would then describe and pick out of a lineup or point to in court.
Memory isn’t like that. It’s not a tape. You can’t “go back in” and “replay the tape” and “spot the forgotten person.” Memory is not a tape. But movies and tv have trained us all to think it is, and they renew the training every day.
Eyewitness testimony is horrendously unreliable, and made even more unreliable than it needs to be because people think it is like a tape and you can go back in and dig up forgotten faces with total accuracy, so witnesses have way more confidence than they should have.
It would be nice to see cop shows start to do a better job of informing us about that.