Vol. 200 October 1, 2018 “Memories Are Made Of This” (apologies to Dean Martin)

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The man [or woman] with a clear conscience probably has a poor memory. ~Author Unknown



He said. She said. Which one has the correct memory? That’s a very good question . . . and there are a variety of answers.

Before the memory is made, of course, perception has to occur. As the police, lawyers, and judges know, perceptions of the same event can vary considerably between witnesses. Much has been written about the unreliability and inaccuracy of eyewitnesses to a crime. Extreme stress during a criminal act, presence of weapons, brief time durations, racial disparities, and lack of significant physical characteristics are some of the causes of much different perceptions. But some of it is due to how our brain works.

As an example of perceptual differences in viewing even non-stressful events click here and watch a video of an attentiveness test. It is a variation of the famous 1999 “Invisible Gorilla” perception test.

In the recent confirmation hearing of a Supreme Court judge dominating our current media only the two principals will be telling their story. Since he denies the event as described by her, and no eyewitness is available, we are back to the reliability of memories.

Memories are thought to be reconstructed like a puzzle rather than being played back like a videotape. Other people questioning the memory, challenging details, asking for repeated retelling (as in the “telephone” party game), or unintentionally giving non-verbal clues can actually alter how the puzzle is reconstructed. Police line-ups as a way of identifying criminals has long thought to be rife with such errors.

False memories have intentionally been created in experiments where researchers present to a number of adults four stories of their own early childhood. Three are true memories. The false story contains some true, irrelevant, but known to the reader, details provided by relatives. Each adult is asked to add any other details they can remember to the stories. In the end one-third of the adults believed that the false memory was true. In follow-up interviews 25% still felt that the false memory was true. This, of course, was a highly structured, experimental manipulation not easily mimicked in real life, but it shows that false memories can be created by outside influences.

Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer that represented victims of Catholic clergy sexual abuse feels that victims often come forward because they feel obligated to for the sake of others. He also notes that both persons believe wholeheartedly that their memory is true, so that both will appear to be equally credible. (1)  This suggests that lie detector test results are irrelevant to characterizing memories as either true or false.

The debate about whether recovered memory in child abuse cases is false or true flared to a peak in the 1990’s. “Recent debates between differing schools of scientific thought, fueled by the media and by lay organizations with varied political agendas, have left the public confused and misinformed regarding the nature of traumatic memories” – ( this was writtenin in 1994!)  In an effort to reconcile the differences of scientific opinion of recovery memory in child abuse cases, a national symposium of all kinds of experts with all kinds of theories was convened in 2012. It did not produce a consensus, but it did produce a 255 page book that you are welcome to read.  (Full disclosure by my true memory: I did not read the whole thing)

“Emotional arousal appears to increase the likelihood of memory consolidation during the retention (storage) stage of memory (the process of creating a permanent record of information). A number of studies show that over time, memories for neutral stimuli decrease but memories for arousing stimuli remain the same or improve. Others have discovered that memory enhancements for emotional information tend to be greater after longer delays than after relatively short ones. This delayed effect is consistent with the proposal that emotionally arousing memories are more likely to be converted into a relatively permanent trace, whereas memories for non-arousing events are more vulnerable to disruption. Several studies have demonstrated that the presentation of emotionally arousing stimuli (compared to neutral stimuli) results in enhanced memory for central details (details central to the appearance or meaning of the emotional stimuli) and impaired memory for peripheral details.  A few studies have even found that emotionally arousing stimuli enhance memory only after a delay.”

We know from PTSD studies that traumatic memories can be either haunting or forgotten. Traumatic memories that are a single event, involve an adult victim, and receive validation and support are more apt to be retained as a “continuous memory”. (i.e.; a rape, assault) Trauma that is repetitive, involving a child victim, and is followed by denial and secrecy is more apt to produce “disassociation/amnesia” (i.e.; incest, abuse, torture).

After reading this you may still be uncertain about who has the correct memory, as well as being undecided about whether the Senate Judicial Committee hearing was a kangaroo court or not. “A kangaroo court is a judicial tribunal or assembly that blatantly disregards recognized standards of law or justice, and often carries little or no official standing in the territory within which it resides. The term may also apply to a court held by a legitimate judicial authority who intentionally disregards the court’s legal or ethical obligations. A kangaroo court is often held to give the appearance of a fair and just trial, even though the verdict has in reality already been decided before the trial has begun. This could be because of the biases of the decision-maker, or because the structure and operation of the forum result in an inferior brand of adjudication.”

HAVE A NICE DAY! If you do, please make sure to remember it.

1. Boston Globe, Sept 23, 2018, B2, Steve Annear



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