Lots of people have memory issues, and there are many things I have forgotten. That’s the nature of memory loss.
What’s more interesting is the current debate (among scientists, no less) about a different kind of memory failure: the creation of false memories:
While some are accusing Brian Williams of deliberately lying about his account of being on a helicopter under attack in Iraq, researchers have long said that memory is not as straightforward as we tend to think.
Williams is under pressure for telling changing versions of the helicopter ride, which he took during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and researchers who have been studying human memory have a number of potential explanations for that.
For decades, Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine, has been conducting research that plants false memories of events in people’s minds. People are convinced of these made-up memories through the power of suggestion, Loftus said.
There are plenty of situations that could influence the creation of false memories, including conversations someone might have with another person, or a news story a person might read. Loftus said it was “certainly feasible” that Williams could have developed the false memory that put him onboard a U.S. military helicopter that was hit and forced down by enemy fire in 2003.
“Memory is susceptible to contamination and distortion and supplementation. It happens to virtually all of us,” Loftus said. “This could easily be the development of a false memory.”
I served on a jury years ago in a case involving a convict charged with the crime of escape. He had complained of being sick, was taken to the hospital where he climbed out a bathroom window, called his brother who arrived with a change of clothes, following which the two stole a car and went on a crime spree. His defense was that he had no memory of the events. It struck the jury as ridiculous, but maybe it wasn’t.
When Bill Clinton said he didn’t have sex with that woman, or didn’t inhale, maybe he, too, had developed false memories.
Lots of people have been caught lying on resumes, making false claims of military service, and some women have been known to have reported rape claims which turned out to be false. If false memory syndrome can occur, then who is anyone to say that someone was actually lying? By what standard?
A related phenomenon is “recovered” false memory. One woman realized that she had lied about her father molesting her, and later wrote a book about it.
Meredith Maran lived a daughter’s nightmare: she accused her father of sexual abuse, then realized, nearly too late, that he was innocent.
During the 1980s and 1990s, tens of thousands of Americans became convinced that they had repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, and then, decades later, recovered those memories in therapy.
Journalist, mother, and daughter Meredith Maran was one of them. Her accusation and estrangement from her father caused her sons to grow up without their only grandfather, divided her family into those who believed her and those who didn’t, and led her to isolate herself on “Planet Incest,” where “survivors” devoted their lives, and life savings, to recovering memories of events that had never occurred.
Maran unveils her family’s devastation and ultimate redemption against the backdrop of the sex-abuse scandals, beginning with the infamous McMartin preschool trial, that sent hundreds of innocents to jail-several of whom remain imprisoned today.
Exploring the psychological, cultural, and neuroscientific causes of this modern American witch-hunt, My Lie asks: how could so many people come to believe the same lie at the same time? What has neuroscience discovered about the brain’s capacity to create false memories and encode false beliefs?
The phenomenon has been around since at least the time of the Salem witch trials.