Memory on tv

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.


  1. says

    Yeah. As a crime show staple, the videotape memory is probably an even worse cock up of reality than “enhanced” security footage where clothing labels, tattoos and the like can be blown up and read/identified as easily as a billboard. People can i.d. voices after hearing them once, in traumatic circumstances, months or even years later. They rarely have trouble picking out someone from a lineup (and its always the “right” person, unless the suspect was disguised or invisible for some reason in the original incident, e.g. it was really dark or the victim was attacked from behind), no matter how long ago the incident was or how old the victim was. Witnesses who aren’t victims remember every small detail and thorough timelines of events, when in reality, who could remember that thoroughly everything that happened on any given day last week? I probably couldn’t relate what I had for dinner every night last week. How would you recognise someone you saw once for a couple of minutes as you passed them on the street or served them in a restaurant or were briefly introduced to at a party (unless something unusual happened to make them stand out or they reminded you of your Uncle Steve)?

  2. says

    That said, when I watch shows on tv (or read certain genres of books), I’m not too concerned about how close they mirror reality. I know that writers take a lot of liberty and that crimes don’t often happen the way they do (or as frequently), motives are rarely so calculated, crime scene forensics are not as super, and eyewitnesses aren’t nearly as reliable as they are in fiction. I mean Miss Marple would have so little to do if there weren’t a body in every library.

  3. says

    Same here, mostly. The memory thing bugs me especially though…I guess because it’s so persuasive, and I probably wouldn’t have realized how wrong it is if I’d never read Elizabeth Loftus, and most people don’t read Loftus, and the criminal justice system puts way too much faith in eyewitness testimony. It all adds up…

  4. Claire Ramsey says

    Perry Mason* was pretty good at asking questions to reveal the errors in “eyewitness” testimony! And Ham Burger ** was always a total sucker for those faulty memories.

    *The hero of US detective stories by Erle Stanley Gardner and then the hero of a US TV show in the 60s.

    ** The district attorney who was usually arguing against Perry in the TV show.

  5. Ant (@antallan) says

    _Criminal Minds_ seems to do a better job, iirc. I shall pay attention to this from now on.


  6. says

    Yes, and come to think of it, 12 Angry Men (the movie – if it’s a novel or play I’ve never read it) turns on a mistaken over-confident “memory.”

    One of the more egregious examples of miraculous memory I can think of is from the Swedish (as opposed to British) Wallander – in which a guy saw two (?) men for a second in a crowd and instantly recognized them as the men who murdered part of his family many years before when he was a small child. PUH-LEEZE – one he wouldn’t have a clear memory in the first place, and two the people he saw would have changed.

  7. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    TV is still flogging repressed memories and multiple personalities, too. Hate it. It’s weird how behind the culture TV is on those. They’re not real and far fewer people believe in them than in the 80s.

  8. says

    The suspicious part of my mind wonders actively if the ramifications of people understanding how memory really works (and, for that matter, even perception) are potentially so far-reaching and unsettling that people don’t actually want to understand how memory works. It’s not just that the video recorder in your head metaphor is so intuitively handy, it’s also that the reality shakes up some very fundamental assumptions, and assumptions on which a lot of existing traditions and institutions and habits hinge. It’s not just the reliance on eyewitness testimony in court systems and elsewhere, it’s things like our very sense of who we are.

    It’s one thing to realize at the intellectual level you get things wrong, you misremember, and effectively reconstruct memories on retrieval, or how easy it is for a skilled sleight-of-hand artist to direct your attention, deeply confuse you about how on Earth they figured out what card you pulled from a deck. It’s another to internalize the real impact of just what a dodgy kludge the whole system can be, how bad your brain can be at it, and that just being honest with yourself about the events of, say, your childhood is actually an incredibly tall order even if you really, really want to. You may well work in a field where the discipline of taking precise-as-you-can notes as close as you possibly can to the events of importance is stressed as a necessary discipline, in which you’ve had lots of proper courses explaining, listen, memory is a crazy thing, you’ve really got to assume it will shift and rapidly over time, even assuming the brain you’re dealing with even registered the detail you’re looking for, and get perfectly well why, and still be shaken to have to think: that life I thought I lived, was that even how it happened? Think of Rachel in Blade Runner, finding out those memories she so treasured weren’t even hers. It’s a bit like that.

    That said, we absolutely need to. A lot of the struggles, I think, in the modern world do circle around this problem. People getting that we’re suckers for stories that fit certain patterns, whether or not they’re true, given to believing them regardless of the actual events, people getting how deeply, say, membership in a group can shape their own perception, these are all things we collectively need to grow up and face, I think. But it would be/will be a deep and scary revolution, and where it leads us is hard to predict.

  9. says


    I guess if you analyze it to that degree, it could also call into question the idea of mind/body duality that religion so relies upon: if our self is, in effect, an accumulation of our memories and they aren’t reliable, how can you squeeze the idea of a soul into that problem? Sure, some people get dementia when they get old or injured, but that’s seen as a kind of deterioration from a perfect whole, one that can be restored upon death. But how can the concept even make sense if there’s no person who ever has a perfect whole to begin with?

  10. says


    I just finished reading U is for Undertow where a similar eyewitness identification is the hinge of the entire plot.
    **spoilers ahead**
    A guy in his mid-twenties suddenly remembers seeing two guys burying a bundle the week a girl was kidnapped when he was six. In fact he erroneously (the only error in his recall–he remembers the layout of the house and backyard, why he was playing outside, what the older boys looked like and what they said etc. etc.) remembers *when* it was because it was his birthday (only in a plot twist it wasn’t his birthday–the only thing a person might really be expected to remember twenty years later, especially since he actually spent his birthday weekend at Disneyland). Later in the story, he recognizes one of the men he saw (who likewise recognizes him at another time when he sees him from a moving car!).

  11. Bill Openthalt says

    @AJ Milne

    But it would be/will be a deep and scary revolution, and where it leads us is hard to predict.

    Very much like free will. The argument has been made that even if it doesn’t exist, we should continue to pretend it does, because the implications –at least at the judicial level– are just too momentous.

    @Claire Ramsey
    It was “Hamilton Burger, the barrel-chested district attorney” :). Gardner dictated his stories, and even though the plots are fiendishly clever, the writing was often stereotyped. That being said, I liked the stories so much I read nearly all of them. Nice to see I am not the only one who made the Hamilton Burger –> Ham Burger connection. I always wondered if it was a deliberate pun.

  12. says

    Ibis #9, yeah, I think you’re onto something; that may well be part of it, too. So much of this points so directly to chattering, fallible, fractious chemicals; so much of it makes it so clear the mind is just what the brain does. Which, the more fine-grained is our study of it, increasingly squeezes one more religious concept out of the gap to which it’s been retreating. You don’t need some glowing orb in there that’s you (presumably blue-white if you’re going to heaven, dirty-red for souls bound for hell). And maybe people start seeing that, start getting uncomfortable, just don’t want to go there.

    … and yeah, Bill, I think there’s some similar challenges posed, there. It’s even part of the same problem, as in the more we understand how the brain works, the clearer it becomes it, too, is a mechanism, albeit a dizzyingly complicated one. Sure, we may be a long, long way from modelling it to the point of being able to predict it usefully on an individual basis, but it’s still clear enough that given input A, brain B will give output C. There’s no ghost in there that’s ‘you’ somehow making the decisions, except insofar as ‘you’ are an emergent phenomenon of that physical brain.

    (I’ve not, by the way, ever quite got why this must ultimately paralyze the justice system entirely or nothin’. That central nervous system is still responsible as part of the chain of events that lead to C; our brains, elsewhere, are matter that may not consider this in a larger interest; it’s reasonable to continue to further that interest… But yeah, certain assumptions about what justice is do get kicked over pretty hard. And ‘punishment’ becomes at most an instrumental concept, and one that may, in fact, become beyond this so much nonsense, which is also a bizarre and downright scary thought for a lot of people, I think… And this is a hugely larger subject there’s no way I’m going to be able to follow to reasonable extent in this thread.)

  13. says

    It’s true, the memory issue can be very disconcerting. I did a little mental exercise a few weeks ago in which I tried to find at least one “real” memory, i.e. on that actually when examined seemed to be really remembering as opposed to just a kind of summary…and the more I tried the clearer it became that I couldn’t. It seemed that all my memories turned out to be narrative as opposed to real, experienced memories. Above all, they are not visual.

  14. Bill Openthalt says

    I do have “visual” memories – of pages of books. Of course, they are not floating in the air in front of my eyes, but they are definitely visual – patterns that I can concentrate on and “read”. Smells can transport me to situations of my childhood, with a very real “re-living” of the moments (but again, no images in front of my eyes, but definitely not just a narrative).

    What is really disconcerting about human memory is that remembering alters the memories, much like a game of Chinese Whispers. Most affected are memories of our life; factual knowledge tends to be more solid.

  15. Scote says

    Part of the problem is that many tv writers write their stories based off of past tv shows, so old tropes get repeated endlessly. I think that is why so many tv shows continued the “if he hangs up too soon we won’t be able to trace the call” bit that hasn’t been true for decades.

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