Friday, 26 March 2021

The vagaries of memory

We have all heard how eye witness testimony can be wrong: where witnesses can go from 100% sure to being proven to be gob-smackedly incorrect in the light of later DNA, or video, evidence. Having just watched a documentary from Deutsche Welle (DW) on memory which goes into the mechanics of how this happens, I thought I would share the documentary's thinking with you.

Apparently our memories start - for the first twelve months or so - being quite 'plastic'. Our memories evolve with how often we revisit them, and in how many times we rehearse each memory, what confirmation we are offered as to 'correctness', and how each memory fits into our group, or societal, meta-memory (if you will). The documentary talked about a longitudinal study run by memory scientists following the Al Qaeda attacks in the US on 11 September 2001. Survey participants could remember where they were and what they were doing soon after the event itself. However, after one year, participant memories of what they were doing and where they were had often changed. From that point on - a point of 'concreteness', in a way, the memory stayed consistent, even out to ten years. It seems that once we have crafted a story that we can live with, we hold it close and nurse it (DW Documentary, 2020).

I resonated with the 11 September 2001 event, but remain sure (!) that I remember my initial thoughts correctly. I awoke to my alarm radio station talking about the first plane having flown into one of the World Trade Center towers, thinking "This is the last time I am listening to The Rock: their practical jokes are simply not funny anymore". Then I got curious and turned on the TV, to find that The Rock was reporting real events as they unfolded. Then I felt guilty for assuming they were pulling the listeners' legs. Shades of The Shepherd's Boy Who Cried Wolf (Aesop, 1912).

Apparently 30% of North American witness testimony is accurate (DW Documentary, 2020). Logically then, the other 70% is inaccurate. That is a fairly scary percentage: consider how many people must have been convicted or fined based on dodgy memory. 

While the documentary talks about police practices which help to ensure that we do not edit our memories when it counts, I think we need to do things that help us to remember our lives in all their joyful, and all their shame-filled moments. 

I was thinking then that we could keep a diary, and record daily those events which happen to us, along with our thoughts and our feelings. Today's fresh thoughts may be more accurate than those we have self-massaged, or have been manipulated from the outside by others.



  • Aesop (1912). Aesop's Fables: a new translation by V. S. Vernon Jones. William Heinemann. 
  • DW Documentary (21 December 2020). When our minds play tricks on us

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