Memory Is How We Remember It

Not Your Brain

When my children were small, their mother acquired a TV set and began to show them videos. So I sat them down one afternoon and explained that everything they’d ever see in a TV show or in a movie was untrue. I explained how TV shows and movies have to reach out and grab the attention of the audience while keeping things as simple as possible so the average person can follow along without having to expend any effort. This leads to a series of clichés ranging from good guys always shooting accurately while bad guys reliably miss, to healthy thin people guzzling vast quantities of sugary drinks and pretending that’s part of their daily routine.

Over the following years we talked a lot about the things they were seeing at their mother’s place and we dissected the shows to reveal the untruths, distortions, and exaggerations. While this may seem bizarre to many US parents, for me it was essential in order to prevent my children from being poisoned by the meretricious trash churned out by the entertainment industry. We know from several studies that most US adults get most of their beliefs about the world from entertainment, and that most of these beliefs are fallacious.

For example: if you have the misfortune to be shot by someone wielding a handgun, you’ll fall down if you’ve seen this happen on TV or in a movie; otherwise you’ll remain standing because a handgun round (even from the over-hyped .44 magnum) lacks the kinetic energy to knock over even a toddler.

For example: if you have to serve on a jury for a capital offence and you’re told that DNA samples indicate the accused was present at the crime scene, you’ll imagine this is conclusive proof because you’ve seen TV shows where this is the clinching evidence. In reality, DNA tests are far less accurate than claimed. These claims are based on a single FBI study in the 1990s which yielded results indicating that an error rate of one per billion or less was the norm. Unfortunately (and perhaps not surprisingly for anyone who knows anything about the FBI) this claim was erroneous because the sample size was far too small. More recent analysis has shown that the actual error rate for using DNA to identify a suspect can have an error rate as low as 0.1% among Caucasians and as high as 0.3% for some other groups. That doesn’t sound like much, but in a typical US town with a population of 50,000 it means anywhere between five and fifteen different unrelated people could each be identified as the culprit based on DNA results.

Another example: if you’ve seen a TV or movie fight scene you’ll believe the human body can (or at least ought to) take an astonishing amount of punishment without incurring serious damage; in reality of course even a single blow to the head can result in death.

Yet another example: if you watch reality TV shows or telenovela-style shows such as Dallas you’ll believe people ought to behave as though totally brain-dead and utterly hysterical. In reality, we’re better served attempting to cultivate our minds and master our passions in order to act purposefully in the world.

But the most pernicious fakery that the entertainment industry uses as a default plot mechanism is the notion that our memories are just like videotape: we can replay at any time with perfect all-encompassing fidelity. Most of us automatically believe this despite the fact we know our own memories are often very fallible indeed. And this mistaken belief often leads to terrible consequences in the real world.

Even today, Courtrooms accept witness testimony based solely on memory. In countless domestic arguments we imagine our recollection of events is accurate. When we judge today’s conditions we do so in no small measure by comparing what we see with what we think we remember. That’s why the past was always a better place. It’s the mentality that leads us to support grotesque stupidities like Trump and Brexit.

Countless studies have demonstrated the fact that human memory is extremely unreliable and easily manipulated. We ought to be very skeptical of memory instead of believing it’s infallible.

More than thirty years ago the British Broadcasting Company ran an interesting experiment. They took twelve members of the public and invited them to take part in a studio debate. At lunchtime the twelve plus two presenters went to a local pub. Midway through the meal an incident occurred close to the diners and in full view of everyone concerned. The twelve then returned to the studio, thinking that they’d resume the debate. In fact, the real purpose of their presence was to see how accurate observation and recall could be. The twelve were separated; each person was placed in a separate soundproof room and then asked to write down what had happened in the pub just a few minutes earlier.

After this, all twelve accounts were compared to a videotape of the incident (the pub had been co-opted by the BBC producers to participate in this experiment, and hidden cameras had been installed to capture the action).

Not a single eyewitness account matched the actual videotape evidence despite the incident having occurred only minutes earlier and under perfect conditions.

People whom the videotape showed as looking elsewhere during the incident were sure they’d seen it. People who had seen it failed to recall nearly all salient details. Some thought a single man had initiated the incident; others thought two or three had acted together. Some claimed they’d seen a tall dark haired man; others that they’d seen someone who was short, fat, and bald. Even the incident itself was misremembered. There was no concordance among the twelve about anything. Yet any of these people could have been presented as reliable witnesses in a Court of law and a person’s freedom could have hung on the accuracy of their recollections.

Numerous subsequent studies have shown that trained personnel such as police officers and intelligence operatives perform no better than the average person when it comes to accuracy of recall. Yet Courts automatically grant them great credence.

Worse yet, it’s easy for others to manipulate our memories. In another experiment, people were shown a series of pictures. The first was of a table with a plate and a knife. The second was of an elephant. The third picture was of a fork. The fourth picture was of an office building. The fifth picture was of a wine glass. The final picture was of a flock of birds. When asked what the first picture contained, a majority of subjects reported seeing a plate, a knife, a fork, and a wine glass.

While this particular experiment was harmless, real-world harm is not difficult to manufacture. Trump’s blustering claim that he saw Moslems dancing as the first plane hit the World Trade Center is a classic example of manufacturing a recollection; countless Trump supporters now believe they saw the same (impossible) thing occur too and this reinforces their fears and prejudices and makes them even more bigoted and vicious than they were before.

We remember what we expect to remember, not what we actually saw or heard.

But still Hollywood churns out product that reinforces our belief that memory is reliable and accurate. And still we continue to believe this is true.

As for all those claims about recovered memories, to the best of my knowledge all investigations have shown such claims to be false. Urban myths are popular and spread like weeds, but that doesn’t mean anything other than the fact we prefer simplistic ideas to complex reality and we’re abysmal at requiring adequate levels of proof before we believe in something.

Doubting our memories is not easy. It’s uncomfortable to accept that our memories are unreliable because it’s our memories that help provide us with our sense of self. Our memories enable us to justify our actions and reassure us that we’re still who we were all those years ago.

Unfortunately our memories are unreliable witnesses and until we accept this fact we’ll continue to act on very insecure foundations.

We should all strive to do better than a Trump.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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