Steven Novella makes an important point: memories are fluid. There’s no VCR in your head, and no tape recorder either, and memories are constructs. You remember the framework (sometimes very poorly) of a past event, and your brain builds a plausible set of details around it. When you picture Christmas at your grandmother’s house when you were 12, you don’t have a record in your head of how many logs were in the fireplace or a second by second recording of the flickering of the fire. You remember that Grandma had a fireplace, and sometimes she had logs burning in it, and maybe there was a fire that year, and your brain obligingly assembles an image for you.
Novella is talking specifically about this recent hullaballoo over Brian Williams getting a story about events in Iraq wrong — he anecdotally places himself in a more dangerous situation than actually occurred. To which I say…so what? A remembered event is intrinsically unreliable. What matters is whether someone persists in believing an error, or adjusts one’s recollection on the basis of evidence. Oh, there’s a picture of the kids around the fireplace that year, and there was no fire? OK. No big deal. Unless I insist that <AlexJonesMode>someone used high technology to edit the old polaroid in a conspiracy to false flag CO2 release from burning wood as a cause of global warming</AlexJonesMode>.
Trauma also mangles memories. My very earliest ‘memory’ is of lying in bed, and seeing my baby brother crawl out of his crib and fall and hurt himself (which puts me at about 2 or 3 years of age). It’s very vivid, and my primary emotion at the time was fear and anxiety, but my mother tells me there was no such incident — that no, my brother Jim did not fall on his head as a baby. I can accept that; I suspect that what really happened is that I imagined a terrifying scenario that impressed me so strongly that over the years, my memory of a memory of a dream assumed the status of reality.
It happens all the time. I imagine that in Williams’ case, an event that was suffused with fear and confusion and the desire to be brave and heroic was especially prone to gradual confabulation. If someone is confronted with evidence that their memories are seriously faulty, the only problem would be if there was an insistence on repeating the error, or making excuses to blame others.
An amusing portrayal of the phenomenon: