Why memories are unreliable

We all know that our memories are unreliable. We forget things that happened and we ‘remember’ things that didn’t. Recent events have put back in the spotlight the issue of false memories. I have written about my own experience with false memories. The fact that people can spontaneously create false memories or have them implanted by others have in the past led to the kinds of miscarriages of justice that occurred during the epidemic of reported abuse in day care centers a few decades ago.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik examines how NBC news anchor Brian Williams’s story about his experience covering wars gradually got embellished over time. This video shows pretty much the same thing.

Williams is not the only person who has embellished his role, putting himself more in the center of the action and in danger than was the actual case. A new investigative report by David Corn And Daniel Schulman in Mother Jones has caught Bill O’Reilly, who has been a harsh critic of Williams, doing similar things. And of course, although she is not a journalist, there was the famous Hillary Clinton episode where she said that she came under fire on an airport runway in Bosnia, when a video record shows that she was greeted by a young girl on the tarmac and walked off quite peacefully.

Maria Konnikova has an article in the New Yorker where she looks at what researchers have found about the many factors that lead to unreliable memories. It turns out that while our memories are not very reliable, our belief in their reliability is very high, even when the memory is of some major event in our lives that we think was vividly etched into our brains.

When the psychologists rated the accuracy of the students’ recollections for things like where they were and what they were doing [when the Challenger shuttle exploded], the average student scored less than three on a scale of seven. A quarter scored zero. But when the students were asked about their confidence levels, with five being the highest, they averaged 4.17. Their memories were vivid, clear—and wrong. There was no relationship at all between confidence and accuracy.

How does the brain store memories?

Within the brain, memories are formed and consolidated largely due to the help of a small seahorse-like structure called the hippocampus; damage the hippocampus, and you damage the ability to form lasting recollections. The hippocampus is located next to a small almond-shaped structure that is central to the encoding of emotion, the amygdala. Damage that, and basic responses such as fear, arousal, and excitement disappear or become muted.

A key element of emotional-memory formation is the direct line of communication between the amygdala and the visual cortex. That close connection, Phelps has shown, helps the amygdala, in a sense, tell our eyes to pay closer attention at moments of heightened emotion. So we look carefully, we study, and we stare—giving the hippocampus a richer set of inputs to work with. At these moments of arousal, the amygdala may also signal to the hippocampus that it needs to pay special attention to encoding this particular moment. These three parts of the brain work together to insure that we firmly encode memories at times of heightened arousal, which is why emotional memories are stronger and more precise than other, less striking ones. We don’t really remember an uneventful day the way that we remember a fight or a first kiss.

So, if memory for events is strengthened at emotional times, why does everyone forget what they were doing when the Challenger exploded? While the memory of the event itself is enhanced, Phelps explains, the vividness of the memory of the central event tends to come at the expense of the details. We experience a sort of tunnel vision, discarding all the details that seem incidental to the central event.

Our brain functions less like an academic historian and more like a writer of historical fiction, using the raw material that we accurately remember for whatever reason to weave a narrative around it. At the conference I attended last week in San Francisco that dealt with the brain and memories, one researcher in the field said that the purpose of memories is less to recall the past than to help us navigate the future, and so what we recall is heavily influenced by why we recall it.

While memories may not be perfectly accurate, they can be useful as gauges of our desires. The kinds of embellishments that people make to their memories are revealing of their wishful thinking and the distortions by Williams, O’Reilly, and Clinton seem to me to be influenced by their worship of the military and their need to identify with what they see as the warrior ethos, to vicariously experience the sense of being in danger. One symptom of that is the way these people casually drop the jargon of the military in their language. Note the use by Williams of the term ‘birds’ for helicopters. Some people might adopt the word ‘chopper’ because that has become commonly used but the word ‘birds’ still largely remains within the military and Williams’s casual use of it is quite telling.


  1. says

    Occam’s razor encourages me to conclude that these media hacks are knowingly lying and not having memory problems, at all. The only thing they forgot is that they might get caught out, eventually.

    Please let’s stop pretending it’s a mistake or a false memory. Clinton lied about sniper fire because she’s a politician and wanted to counter concerns that as a woman, she might not be “tough” enough to be president (I.e.: not violent enough) and because she has a history of sending other people into harm’s way. Bill O’Reilly lied because he actually is a cringing deskjockey and a bully, and wanted to look tough by claiming he’d seen combat that he didn’t. Williams lied about the shootdown because, I guess, he wanted to look like a tough war correspondent not a manicured and pomaded talking head in a bespoke suit.

    There’s no reason to search for a complex answer involving memory disorders.

  2. jester says

    Except that the search for (and discovery of) the complex answer was independent of these media stories. It’s not a memory disorder; it’s how memory works. These cases may indeed be “just so” stories, but the evidence shows that it does happen. How does one know the difference in any given case? That’s a good question, but Occam doesn’t say the simplest answer is the right one.

  3. Mano Singham says


    While it may be true that they were consciously lying, if so they were pretty bad at it. A conscious liar would make up a plausible story and stick with it. Williams and O’Reilly’s stories kept changing. Clinton was secretary of state and knows that the media was following her every move. To make up a dramatic lie of an event that took place in full public view at an official function on an airport runway is kind of stupid.

  4. Holms says

    I would suggest that Marcus’ explanation isn’t even the simplest one. Lying requires intent, while misremembering is simply a product of the normal function of memory; as you say, that’s just how it works.

  5. Birric Forcella says

    And so . . . . why then are we supposed to believe women when they make rape claims months or years after the supposed fact? It’s likely they don’t remember their giving consent or other pertinent facts and only remember what they want . . .

  6. Jester says

    Birric, that’s a valid question. If a woman started “remembering” a rape with no external influence, no other evidence, and a history of telling a different story, I might consider the claim closer to the “recovered memory” child molestation kerfuffle from the 80’s. But in some cases it’s not that the memory just surfaced; only that the story did. They had told others in private for a long time. In the high profile cases there is also corroborating evidence from others.

  7. Jester says

    Further, in US society there are many reasons why an individual woman might feel she cannot be open about the event at the time but can when her situation later changes and wants the truth to be known. We can’t blame the victim in such situations, even if she can’t produce what a court would consider evidence.

  8. lorn says

    Before any of these organizations land anywhere near a war zone, or potential war zone they go over contingency plans (if we get fired upon we will as we are landing we … If after we land we … ), they cover background on what to expect (previous flights have been fired upon), and, the ever popular (If anything happens we will tell you what to do and may simply throw you to the ground and lay on top of you). Expectations and planning change the context and make events more uncertain.

    Hint from personal experience: It isn’t always clear if you are being shot at. I’ve seen it both ways. I was twenty feet away from a drive-by shooting, three shots with a small caliber weapon that lightly wounded one, and didn’t know it, and Ive thought there was gunfire when there wasn’t.

    You also have to remember that a whole lot of people are invested in catching a “lie”. I like how everyone citing this as a lie by Clinton seems to think that that one visit with the kid and flowers was absolutely the only time Clinton was on an airport runway in Bosnia. Seems to me like Hillary was, for a time, doing a good bit of mediation and what might be termed ‘shuttle diplomacy’ Does anyone here have a complete accounting of every trip and every event? How would you know if you didn’t? It also might be remembered that Bosnia was a mess a the time with fights breaking out all over. Kids with flowers are not absolute proof that shots were not fired somewhere in the general vicinity. The Secret Service would assume any shots, or anything that sounded like shots, to be aimed at their charge.

    Yes, people lie. Sometimes out of mistaken memory, sometimes out of enthusiasm, sometimes for profit or political gain. I doubt Clinton or Williams made a conscious and dedicated cost-benefit analysis and concluded that they needed to spice up their story or they would fail politically, or as an entertainer, and, what the hey, nobody will know. I picture that decision being made with a malevolent grin and an evil chuckle. This isn’t like Soon writing to people who pay for him to lie and calling his lies “deliverables”. In these cases there was little or nothing to be gained and they were speaking casually.

    I find it ironic that a series of talking heads on FOX News daily lie about things we really need to know the truth about if the nation is to do the right thing and they get paid millions for it. Brian Williams blows it in a fluff piece where he is speaking casually and being encouraged to deliver an interesting story about an event that is nearly ancient history now and he is on the verge of being fired.

    Eye witness accounts are always the lowest form of evidence. I participated in a repeat of a classic study where people viewed a short film. In the film, as I remember it, a red car ran into a yellow car. Some people were simply asked to recount what they saw. Some people were asked ‘what did you think about the film where the yellow car ran into the red car’. When questioned later the first group mostly remembered it correctly. While the second group tended to remember it backward. Humans are story tellers. We remember drama and emotion. We remember action. We remember what happened, but we might get things turned around.

    All part of being human.

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