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.