On Memory and Story-Telling

by Alli Lindquist

I remember driving across the country the day after September 11, 2001. We had to get back home to Colorado from where we were staying with my grandparents in Florida and I have a distinct memory of cuddling up in the squashed backseat of a sedan with my baby brother. When talking about this with my parents later, they tell me that we did indeed drive across the country that September, but we were, in fact, seated in a huge Expedition with three rows. They tell me that my brother and I looked tiny in our seats.

I was left wondering how this could happen. How could I remember something that I considered so distinctive and unique to my childhood so incorrectly? I was the one experiencing it, wasn’t I? How could I not recall the same details that my parents did?

We tend to lean on memory as a foothold, seeing the retelling of experiences as a time-stamped video of the past. This tendency to lean on memory retrieval has the implicit (and seemingly obvious) conclusion that experience is equal to the memory of the experience.

In season three of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell addresses this very topic. He recounts the story of Brian Williams, a journalist who, in 2013, told a story of when he was in Iraq, helping with the war journalism efforts. He describes how he was on a Chinook helicopter that took arms fire and they were forced to land in the middle of nowhere.

Directly following his retelling of a near-death experience, people began to claim that this story couldn’t have been true. According to the helicopters’ captains, one of the Chinooks did, in fact, go down under fire—but it wasn’t the same helicopter that Williams himself was on. Furthermore, William’s helicopter wasn’t even in visual range of the one that did take fire. Immediately, prominent figures in the media began to smear Williams for his inaccurate report, claiming that it was ego or a break in “journalistic commandment” that made him juice the details of the story.

Gladwell’s obsession with things forgotten or misunderstood is clear in this episode. He goes on to explain why he thinks William made this memory error—and how most of us have a naïve idea of what memory really means. For Gladwell, William’s story is a simple case study that exposes a flaw in our understanding of memory. He explains that it is very likely that Williams really did think he was telling the truth as he remembered it. However, similarly to my experience recalling our road trip from Florida to Colorado, it wasn’t entirely accurate.

According to cognitive psychologists, what gets encoded into memory is dependent on a huge number of factors, including a person’s expectations, emotional state, attention, and what is already stored in memory. Whatever information gets encoded is then consolidated with other information into long-term storage. Later retrieval is also affected by the same factors, as well as by what has caused the person to recollect the event (see Howe & Knott, 2015). What gets retold is dependent on the purpose of the recollection—this could be for purposes of entertainment when telling a story to a friend, emotional poignancy when talking to a therapist, or even detailed accuracy if talking to the police.

Interestingly though, the retrieval is a reconstruction of the consolidated bits of memory—meaning each retrieval could be different based on experiences that have occurred in the interim. Each retrieval opens the memory to molding and suggestibility, often changing veridical facts into unique, and yes, even untruthful understandings of experience.

We tend to lean on memory as a foothold, seeing the retelling of experiences as a time-stamped video of the past.

In Brian William’s case, Gladwell asserts his job as a journalist was to interview, retell, and then record the events of that fateful day in Iraq. Each time, accessing and consolidating the memories of the day with new information from those were also present. It seems much more likely that he simply consolidated this information very close to the original experience, and in subsequent retrievals, it began to blur into one experience without his knowledge.

Psychologists have studied this phenomenon for years in a series of “Flashbulb” event studies. These experiments involved giving questionnaires to people directly following an event of large importance such as 9/11, or the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, and then asking those questions again at intervals following the event. These could range from a few weeks, a few months, to even a years after the initial incident.

A synthesis of results from these studies show that memory consistency has a striking 60% decline, which means that around 60% of a person’s memories change over time! Even more astounding is how completely confident people are in their memories, even when they are proven to be incorrect. Subjects cannot accept the fact that they remember things incorrectly, which displays an important flaw in our understanding of memory. We cannot continue to be memory fundamentalists—simply because it has been proven that reality is not synonymous with memory. This does not display character flaws or an inflated ego, but rather a normal human error.

With hundreds telling him he was a liar, Williams had nothing left to do but take everything back, defaming himself on TV by saying he was tripped up by his ego. Gladwell responded with a charge to “Free Brian Williams!” from a crime that he believed Williams didn’t actually commit.

Inaccurate storytelling aside, this phenomenon of memory mutability holds one arresting consequence for me: the criminal justice system and its use of eyewitness testimony as an evidence tool.

I have long been obsessed with the pursuit of justice. It seems to me a beautiful example of the development of a democratic society. I believed that forensics was an infallible matter, and the justice system was nuanced enough to take care of human error on its way through the system. When I interned at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, I got an inside look at the forensics and court processes—essentially the kinds of things they don’t show you on TV. It is through these experiences that I first heard of the Innocence Project. This group attempts to educate investigators and those in the justice system of the impact that faulty eyewitness memory has on convictions. Faulty eyewitness testimony has been implicated in at least 75% of DNA exoneration cases.

Perhaps by taking a hard look at the weight we place on eyewitness testimony is an important step to creating a justice system that holds up against the nuances of memory malleability, while still separating these failures from a lapse in character. Allowing cognitive psychologists to be a part of the conversation in legal cases gives defendants a fair chance against witness testimony. If given a chance to explain the potential for mistakes in eyewitness retrieval, while still giving witnesses dignity of character, the legal system will have a more holistic understanding of the very people they aim to protect and serve.

For us common folk, we can do the same. I urge you to accept the fallibility of memory as an intrinsic part of the human experience and remind those around you of the same. Even though I may not remember the details of my post 9/11 trip across the country, that experience still affected my life and the way I interact with the world. There is no doubt in my mind that the human capacity for memory is incredibly powerful, and we would not be able to fully experience reality without the consolidation and storage of our experiences. We are very lucky to also live in a time where technology can complement these powerful skills by allowing us to return to those time-stamped videos of the past—just don’t take it personally if the recording doesn’t match your memory!

Further Recommended Readings:

The Memory Illusion by Julia Shaw

“The fallibility of memory in judicial processes: Lessons from the past and their modern consequences” by Mark Howe & Lauren Knott, 2015

“Flashbulb Memories” by William Hirst and Elizabeth Phelps, 2017

Innocence Project

Free Brian Williams (Malcolm Gladwell, Revisionist History podcast)

Alli Lindquist is a Staff Writer from Colorado. She currently attends Hope College.