For years, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has shared stories about his life as a journalist. In recent weeks, though, his claim that the helicopter he was in came under fire in Iraq has come into question, as have his recollections of seeing a body floating in the French Quarter of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Following NBC’s announcement that it will suspend Williams for six months without pay, it’s easy to lampoon him for his apparent difficulty accurately remembering events. The hashtag #BrianWilliamsMisremembers has Twitter users placing Williams at virtually every historical event and perpetrating nearly every well-known crime.
Setting aside the overriding issue of trust, the science of memory may offer important clues about why Williams might remember events differently from how they actually happened. There’s strong evidence that memories can be shaped, changed, or even created over time.
The Fickle Nature of Memory
Most of us aren’t accustomed to having our memories called into question. The story you told your spouse yesterday may never come up again, which means you’ll never have to consider whether the story happened the way you said it did. Public figures, by contrast, are subject to near-constant scrutiny, and Williams isn’t the only one to be caught misremembering. Hillary Clinton’s claims that she and daughter Chelsea Clinton came under sniper fire in Bosnia have been questioned and refuted by video evidence. Mitt Romney once recalled being at an automotive celebration in Michigan as a young child, but it turned out he hadn’t been born yet. Senator Tom Harkin claimed to have fought in Vietnam even though military service records indicate otherwise.
Memories aren’t tangible objects stored somewhere in the brain, and the mind doesn’t perfectly record the events of our lives like a computer. Instead, memory creation is the product of associations and a lot of practice. If you “practice” the wrong memory by telling a story incorrectly or by hearing inaccurate details, it can change what you “remember.” When a memory is emotionally charged—such as flying over a war zone or witnessing the pandemonium after a devastating hurricane—it may be even more challenging to correctly remember it.
In one study, researchers altered a photo to show participants riding in a hot air balloon as children. The researchers were able to convince half of the group that they went on the hot air balloon ride. In another study, researchers convinced college students they committed crimes that never occurred. This research suggests it’s possible for small details, the power of suggestion, and difficulty remembering long-ago events to add up to big changes in memories. When a story changes in small ways here and there over time, it can eventually become entirely unrecognizable.
“Memories are not created or stored like digital files,” Archer said. “All of our schemas, stereotypes, and beliefs—stored in the back of the brain—are projected through a biased cognitive filter before we take in the memory. When we imagine the memory, it’s a nuanced reconstruction of what literally occurred.
“Each time we recall, the memory is implicitly more inaccurate. As one is reinforced by recalling the event, there is an incentive to retell it. For example, after receiving a laugh the first time, the recollection is next infused with a dramatic flavor. For Brian Williams, it may have been the case where the fish got a little bigger each time he told the story. Unfortunately for him, the fish was soon holding a [rocket-propelled grenade].”
False Memory Scandals
The false memory debates of the 1980s and ’90s show that it’s possible to vividly remember something that never happened. A few decades ago, some mental health professionals began using hypnosis to help people recall “repressed” memories of childhood abuse. The high suggestibility that comes with hypnosis caused many people to recall abuse that may not have happened.
Though many of the memories were fake, the emotional pain was real. People convinced they were abused experienced intense anxiety, flashbacks, and other symptoms associated with abuse. In several cases, people sued their therapists and won multimillion-dollar settlements. In other cases, false memory victims continued to believe the false memory even when there was proof it never happened.
We’re still learning about memory, and the memory science of today may look very different from the memory science of tomorrow. One thing is clear, though: memories are often unreliable.
- Eck, A. (2015, February 9). Neuroscience suggests that Brian Williams may in fact be “misremembering” Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/body/brian-williams-may-fact-misremembering/
- Loftus, E. F. (1997, September). Creating false memories. Retrieved from http%3A%2F%2Ffaculty.washington.edu%2Feloftus%2FArticles%2Fsciam.htm
- Nutt, A. E. (2015, February 5). The science behind Brian Williams’s mortifying memory flub. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2015/02/05/the-science-behind-brian-williams-mortifying-memory-flub/
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