Video character with brain waves.
It’s easy for us to find metaphors and analogies from the world of machines and technology to help us better understand how narrative and story operate in our consciousness. But they are essentially flawed. Remembering something from the past is not the same as opening a file in Microsoft® Word. Every time you open a computer file it’s the same as when you last opened it, provided you made no changes. Every time you recall a past experience, it’s not always the same. It’s affected by the context in which you’re reminiscing, your audience you may be sharing with, the social setting, how you’re feeling at that very moment, and your intentions for sharing. It may also be affected by a host of other extraneous factors that we’ll discuss below. That’s a lot of variables, and that’s why when uncle Harry recounts the story about the giant fish he caught at the lake when he was your age, nearly fifty summers ago, the size of the fish continues to grow and the heroic struggle he endured becomes embellished with even more fantastic details with every telling.
You see, memory is not like an heirloom that we bring up from the basement and dust off every time there’s a guest who’s interested in a relic from the past. The recounting of memories is dependent upon our mentally re-constructing them afresh each and every telling. The way a personal tale is told serves our needs and ends in the present moment and may have only a tenuous relationship with what actually occurred in the past. For this reason, autobiography is, in the final analysis, an act of fiction making. Our life tales are not exact recreations of the way things were. At best, there is a verisimilitude between the way things happened and the way they are described. The longer the elapsed time between the event and the remembering and telling, the less likely that the telling resembles the facts of what took place. There is no camera in the sky that we can objectively refer to for the “truth” of what happened. Each time we tell a story, it has a chosen point of view, has omitted many things that we deemed, albeit unconsciously most of the time, to be irrelevant or that simply don’t fit well into the wider metanarrative we are attempting to present. Invariably, we paint a picture that presents us in a particular light, usually a favorable one, although at times some of us have enough humility to tell a tale about ourselves that is humorous, depicting our humanity and foibles in all of their gory detail. The same story told by others who were present at the time might paint an arguably darker picture in which we weren’t the hero, perhaps portraying us as the villain or the anti-Christ. That story might accentuate a whole host of details that we omitted from our telling making an outside observer wonder if we’re actually talking about the same event.
To make matters even more complicated, we have the tendency to add details, emotions, and even other experiences to the past that don’t hearken from that earlier time. Rather, they are reflections of more recent events and experiences. In essence, we contaminate our telling about the past with the present and all of the times in between. This is sobering news for any group tasked with judging the veracity of a story, such as a jury. A chilling example is the case of the death of Jean Charles de Menezesi, an innocent Brazilian misidentified by British police as the perpetrator of a failed bombing the day before and shot dead by police three years ago. This horrendous error was witnessed by dozens of innocent bystanders. At the inquest the judge attempted to get to a simple retelling of the events of that day, but as it turns out there was nothing simple at all about this case. It became more and more difficult to discern who was telling the truth. “Firearms officers recalled running on to the Underground platform at Stockwell and challenging de Menezes by shouting “Armed Police,” before shooting him seven times in the head. But 17 civilian witnesses could not remember such a thing being said. The police said that
the electrician [de Menezes] had stood up and walked “aggressively” towards them, but some witnesses do not remember him getting up from his seat at all. Everyone recalled a slightly different sequence of events, even when it came to such basic facts as the number of bullets fired or the clothes de Menezes was wearing.” Clearly, in the midst of a traumatic event, being an objective bystander simply observing the events as they unfold and describing them is complicated at best by one’s physical point of view, attention and focus at the time of the event, one’s feelings about the police, one’s identification with the innocent victim post hoc, as well as one’s reactivity to the shocking disturbance of close range gunfire.
How tales of the past bleed into circumstances from times other than when the original event occurred became most apparent in the 1980s and early 1990s when adults would recover memories of abuse from their early childhood. In their testimony they would often describe details such as the color of a room or the style of clothing they were wearing that under closer scrutiny proved to be problematic. Pictures of the room from that time would have it painted an entirely different hue. Photos of the individual from that time would have them dressed differently, and the style of clothing that they described when the crime occurred didn’t come into fashion until many years later. Is this to say that the event didn’t occur because of these fallacious details. No, but it does illustrate serious questions about how we remember things. Within the context of the legal system, it is chilling to note that faulty memories can have serious consequences. Inaccurate eyewitness testimony was a key factor in approximately 75% of the first hundred cases of individuals exonerated by DNA evidence after being convicted of crimes they did not commit.ii
Next Week: Memory Malleability
i The perils of relying on memory in court: When it comes to powers of recollection, the brain makes it up as it goes along, according to a new report on law and memory, The Telegraph, by By Sanjida O’Connell, March 14, 2019.
ii Scheck B., Neufeld P., Dwyer J. Actual Innocence: Five days to Execution and Other Dispatches From the Wrongly Convicted. New York, NY: Doubleday; 2000; and, Wells GL., Small M., Penrod S., Malpass RS., Fulero SM., Brimacombe CAE. Eyewitness identification procedures: recommendations for lineups and photospreads. Law Hum Behav. 1998;22:603–647.