On the Accuracy of Memory: or a Nuanced Approach to Current Events


clock-1425684

Trigger Warning: Rape is discussed.

Bias disclaimer: I am strongly opposed to Brett Kavanaugh being on the Supreme Court for many reasons, the most obvious being the overwhelming evidence of criminal activity of the current president. Kavanaugh has taken a firm stance that sitting presidents should not be indicted. I’m also a liberal who has never voted for a Republican for any office, no matter how small and local. Etc, etc.

Current event summary: Christine Blasey Ford has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of attempted rape from 36 years ago at a high school party based on her personal memory of the event.

I didn’t want to weigh in on this, but as someone who has written extensively on math, science, Bayesian statistics, cognitive biases, truth, and knowledge, I just didn’t see any articles out there with nuanced, clear thinking on this issue. So here goes.

The world is not black and white. People think there are only two options when it comes to Ford’s accusation against Kavanaugh.

The first is that it is perfectly understandable why she didn’t come forward until now. She has nothing to gain and everything to lose, so she must be telling the truth. The other is that this is an opportunistic, political move and clearly a false accusation.

The truth almost never falls in such partisan terms.

The human brain, and memory in particular, is a complicated thing. How about we ditch partisan politics for five seconds and try to take a nuanced approached to things?

No one wants to believe their memory is faulty. Memory is basically our whole sense of self. To make an attack on the accuracy of memory feels like an attack on our selves. But it’s not.

Try to distance yourself from this for a bit, and let’s examine what the science says from a cool, rational perspective. If you feel yourself getting angry, take a deep breath, and chant the mantra: nuance, nuance, nuance.

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was raped. She paid careful attention to detail, and had vivid, horrifying memories of the event. Fortunately, she was able to identify the assailant with “100% certainty” only a few days later: Ronald Cotton. He spent 10 years in prison for the crime.

Whew. Thank God for memory.

Except that he was released from prison after 10 years because DNA evidence exonerated him of the crime.

In 1985, a woman was raped and murdered in Beatrice, Nebraska. Six people were found guilty. Ada JoAnn Taylor was one of those people, and she confessed to the crime. She still has “vivid” memories of committing the crime. When something that horrifying happens, you never forget the details.

In 2008, DNA evidence exonerated all of them. Ada did not commit the murder, yet she has clear memory of doing it. If you read that sentence without getting goosebumps, read it again and again and again until you fully grasp the significance of it. She has a vivid memory of committing a murder she didn’t commit.

Most people talk about how vivid and clear the details of where they were when September 11, 2001 happened. It was a traumatic event in most of our lives. How could we ever forget such things?

Fortunately, a collective of memory researchers got right on that. They interviewed thousands of people while the memory was fresh. A mere one year later, they asked people to recall the event. A majority of people had high confidence in their accuracy (how could you ever forget such things?), yet they were totally wrong about things as major and fundamental as people with them and their location. In fact, consistency was only at 63%.

The shifting of details only gets worse over time. One can imagine how much will have changed in 30+ years.

Recollection of these short, traumatic experiences are called flashbulb memories, and decades of research show they have something in common: they are vivid, people have high confidence in their accuracy, and they are wildly inaccurate. In other words, the listed examples above are not isolated outliers; they are the norm.

No matter the trauma of the event, memories are notoriously faulty. Sometimes we mis-remember small details, like who was with us when we found out about the September 11 attacks. Sometimes the event happened, and despite a vivid, clear recollection of the perpetrator, this major detail is false.

Sometimes our brains fabricate entire traumatic events, like when someone truly remembers being abducted and abused by aliens.

In all these cases, the person is telling the truth about their experience. In other words, the person isn’t lying or making it up or intentionally falsely accusing. The experience and memory is real. But, unfortunately, this tells us very little about the accuracy of any of it. This is why this sort of testimony doesn’t stand up in court anymore.

Deep breath: nuance, nuance, nuance.

So where are we now? Vividness of a memory does not make it accurate. Confidence in a memory does not make it accurate. Trauma surrounding a memory does not make it accurate. The more time that passes, the less accurate a memory gets.

These are all scientific facts about the human brain. To deny these facts in the service of politics is as bad as Republicans who deny climate change for political reasons. We have to be honest, not partisan, when it comes to scientific facts of the world, no matter how inconvenient.

And please do not post your own traumatic experiences here. I get it. You remember every detail with high confidence like it was yesterday. You’re sure it’s all accurate, because it has played out in your mind everyday since it happened.

I’m sorry that happened to you.

Deep breath: nuance, nuance, nuance.

What is the nuanced approach to the situation we find ourselves in?

It’s to say to Christine Blasey Ford: I believe you. This event happened. You’re not lying. You’re not making it up for political reasons. The memory of the event is crystal clear, and Kavanaugh was the one doing it. We understand why you didn’t come forward until now.

Unfortunately, in the world we live in, we must take the position that this memory alone is not disqualifying for him, because memories, even major details like the perpetrator of a crime, are often wrong.

I think there are plenty of reasons to not confirm Kavanaugh, but let’s not set this one as the precedent.

Anti-empiricism is never progressive. Denying reality is no way to change reality. -John McWhorter

~

Additional Reading:

Memory Distortion for Traumatic Events: The Role of Mental Imagery 

Trauma, PTSD, and Memory Distortion

A mega-analysis of memory reports from eight peer-reviewed false memory implantation studies

Notes as of 9/24/2018: I wrote this about a week ago, mostly as a way to vent against the black and white thinking I saw. New information has come to light, like a new accusation against Kavanaugh and a date for Ford to give her testimony.

This post is not meant to weigh all the current and cumulative evidence that can come to light in the coming hours and days.

Advertisements

One thought on “On the Accuracy of Memory: or a Nuanced Approach to Current Events

  1. Great post.

    Actually, research has proven that memories tend to get re-written whenever we call them up. That’s why, if you don’t have a photo of what a person looked like when they were younger, and you see this person regularly, you probably have trouble remembering what they looked like when they were younger. Every time you see the person, you re-write in your memory what they look like.

    Memories of important events, that get re-told regularly, are very likely to suffer from this problem. Every time you re-tell it, you mix it up with whatever your friends answer back. That’s why a good treatment for traumatic memories is telling it to somebody who is friendly, understanding, and likely to minimize the event, rather than saying how terrible it must have been. Assuming that the traumatic memory is something you want to soften, that is.

    Also, it’s been proven that memories can be made up purely by imagination. A personal example: my favorite scene in Star Wars is… one that isn’t in the movie. When I watched it as a child, I used to close my eyes in scenes when I thought a character I really liked was about to die. The second time I watched The Empire Strikes Back, I realized to my astonishment that I had made up in my imagination the whole scene at the end of Luke’s battle with Darth Vader. I must have listened to it with my eyes closed, but I only realized this the second time I watched the movie, and I have no memory of closing my eyes.

    Some people, after being told a number of times that they did something, and vividly imagining it, end up believing that their imagined scene is a true memory. Our minds clearly can’t distinguish between memories and vivid imaginations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s