Memories: The Enemy of Truth
by Edie Kendel
May 5, 2014
Recollection of events are an important part of sharing information. Every time we tell a story about something we experienced, we are imparting pieces of knowledge to others who haven't experienced the events, themselves. The collecting and sharing of memories allows us to retain pieces of the past. We can be aware of events that we didn't see for ourselves. It allows us to have pre-determined instructions on how navigate through life. This pre-determination can be as problematic as useful. The wisdom imparted upon us is dependent upon the person's recollection of events. The truth is that the disparity between recollection and reality is often very wide. When we recall events, some of what we think we remember is, in fact, lies conjured up by our well-meaning brains.
There are a lot of things happening around us, at any given time. There is variety of stimuli, that we are bombarded with, including sights, sounds, and scents. Our brains decides what is meaningful and what is useless information, that is, what we should be actively paying attention to and what is inconsequential background "noise." This subconscious discarding of information causes some details of events to be lost. We can decide to focus on particular things, which allows for a greater chance of a lasting imprint in our memories. The tradeoff, of actively focusing on something, is that more of what is occurring around us gets pushed into the background and potentially useful information is ignored.
When we recall events that we witnessed or were involved in, some of what actual occurred is not available in our memory. Some pieces may be lost because we simply did not see or hear everything that happened. Some information is lost to memory degradation. When we try to remember an event, although we may think we have a clear picture in our minds of exactly what we saw, our brain is actually recreating the event for us. Our minds fill in the gaps of missing information based on past experience and pre-existing associations with our environment. The recollection is, in essence, a story of what happened. As our mind is pulling pieces of what happened and reforming the event and specifics can easily be crossed with other parts of what occurred. You may say with assurance and truly believe that one woman wore a red jacket, for example, when the red color was actually on someone else or on another item. As time passes, and more pieces of the memory are lost, the next time we try to remember what happened our mind will fill in the new gaps with new "guesses." The story, that we create in our mind, will become less accurate every time we recall the event. This is how our brains normally recall events. It is perfectly normal for our brains to invent parts of what actually happened.
There are other things that can affect our memories. Listening to someone else, tell their version of an event, can change our memory of the event. The malleability of memory and its susceptibility to outside influence makes it a flawed system for recalling details of events. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus' "Lost in the Mall Study" demonstrates how an event that never occurred could easily be implanted into our minds, simply by having someone else tell us that it happened to us. Here is a short video that describes her experiment and the results.
What does this mean in our world of skepticism? There have been many extraordinary claims for which there is not a shred of solid evidence for. Supernatural claims of ghosts, sightings of legendary creatures, such as Bigfoot, only exist as stories. The only reason some believe these phenomena exist is because people have given accounts of their experiences, also known as anecdotal evidence. When someone gives eyewitness testimony, all we really have is the suggestion that something occurred the way the person described it. We know it's unlikely that is happened, exactly as described, because we know memory is flawed. Multiple eye witnesses may make the event seem more plausible, but we also have to consider the affect of witnesses discussing the occurrence, amongst themselves, which will alter some of the recollections. The more time that passes from the sighting and the retelling of the story, the more likely it is that the details have been affected by degradation and outside influences.
While it may seem that our system of memory is highly problematic, considering that we most likely aren't remembering events accurately, it is quite a remarkable system for survival. Assessing danger and interpreting the things we encounter is essentially for survival. Being able to draw upon past experiences and make rapid decisions requires a complex system based on associations and predictions. The mistakes of perception and memory are a consequence of adaptations that serve us very well in our every day lives. Recognizing these natural errors is important in assessing the value of eyewitness testimony. All of our brains create unintentional lies when we we retell stories of what we witnessed. Anecdotal evidence may be able to give us clues about things that we haven't experienced for ourselves. Assuming that details of these accounts are accurate, however, can be fatal to finding the truth.
by Edie Kendel
@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit