Picking up on my last post, the saga of the news anchor’s fabulist memories continues. Will it end his career? Will every report he ever made be branded a lie? Will consumers of American news suddenly become conscious of all the discrepancies in the “first draft of history” that is broadcast constantly on cable and on the Internet?
Answers: (1) Maybe. (2) By some —most likely his colleagues from more conservative news outlets, who prefer critiquing him to self-examination… And, (3) unlikely as memories are very short and ideas about politics are deeply entrenched.
But the story will not die quickly and, in this case, I continue to be fascinated by its wider ramifications. This time the science section of The New York Times carried an article on the phenomenon of FALSE MEMORIES and on how memories are stored in the complicated attics we call brains.
The widely held misconception is that memories are swallowed whole and remain unchanged, filed away like old 8mm home movies to be viewed later, is entirely wrong, and anyone who has sat down with an old friend to reminisce has no doubt experienced two, or more, versions of the same event.
I was the one driving and you lost the map.
No, it was your map. I remember that clearly.
We ran into that guy you had a crush on. It was right after you met your husband and…
No, no… You it was right before I met my husband. I remember because I was wearing that dress we both liked. Remember, it looked better on you, but…
False memories often conflate different experiences or become altered over time as bits and pieces become cloudy and are replaced with other memories, things you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, etc. Altered, enhanced, embellished and sometimes missing memories can become false when the facts are at odds with the recollections.
I have an early memory that, intellectually, I understand is really a family story I heard often enough to believe it’s my individual memory of the experience. As it’s about a lost doll and I was under two years old… Well, it’s a story and NOT a real memory. I’ve also woken up from vivid dreams wondering if it’s a memory and not a dream —or something in-between. My vote usually goes for in-between when it’s particularly vivid.
False memories can be planted. Some people are susceptible to these created memories that can nestle into our brains via hypnosis, drugs or, even, mere suggestion. We want to believe that what we remember is the truth and that belief in our own infallibility gets us every time.
The legal implications of false memories —especially implanted memories— have fascinated me for a long time. Memories created through suggestion have led to false confessions and false accusations. The infamous McMartin Preschool trials of the late 1980s are just the most vivid example of the harm that can come from false memories.