The way we remember

I’m not going to tell you the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it. – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

No truly honest memoir should begin without the above quote from Charles Dickens. The Shakespeare of English letters knew quite well how fragile and distorted memory can be, especially over time. The distance strains our view and our minds creatively enhance the fading contours and colors at the margins of our memory. We may well feel we vividly remember certain events in our life, but what we usually remember is more the gist, the emotional impact than the particular facts of the event. This is why journalists and writers take notes and quickly write down their thoughts and observations, so they can immediately memorialize, in writing, an event, conversation, or observation for accuracy. Barring that immediate record, we should approach recollections, especially one from many years past, with a good degree of humility and caution.

But even very recent memories, as most of us have experienced, can either be forgotten or distorted when we’re asked to recall them. We’re all expert eyewitnesses to the events of our own life, right? You would think we’d be absolutely sure about what we’ve seen, especially when our mind is focused on the event. But let’s take a very interesting case for examination.

Jennifer Thompson, a student at Elon College, was assaulted and raped in her college apartment one evening. During the rape she intentionally focused on the identity of her attacker so she could identify him latter. She was eventually able to escape. She provided a description to the police and eventually twenty-two year old Ronald Cotton was arrested. Cotton worked at a local restaurant and had a police record. Thompson picked Cotton out of a police line up. Thompson testified at court and fingered Cotton as the man who raped her. Cotton denied this over and over. He was found guilty after only forty minutes of jury deliberation and sentenced to life plus fifty years in prison.

While in prison Cotton overheard inmates saying that another inmate named Bobby Poole had actually raped Jennifer Thompson. Poole resembled Cotton and Poole was also in prison for rape. When Thompson confronted Poole he denied it. But Poole’s conversation with other inmates about raping Thompson was used to get Cotton a new trial.

At the new trial Jennifer Thompson stood roughly fifteen feet away from Poole and Cotton. She, again, identified Ronald Cotton as her rapist. The court upped Cotton’s punishment to two life sentences. Not too long after Cotton’s 2nd trial, the new scientific procedure of DNA testing proved that indeed it was Bobby Poole, not Ronald Cotton, who had raped Jennifer Thompson that night. Cotton had served 10.5 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton would eventually come together to write a book about this awful miscarriage of justice.

It’s important for us to remember that Jennifer Thompson was a “focused” witness. She was purposely studying the face and build of her attacker and yet she fingered an innocent man over and over. Could we get a better witness than Jennifer Thompson? She had no prior bias or knowledge of Cotton and she was purposely focusing on her attacker for later identification. She was morally certain that Cotton was the man who raped her. And yet she was terribly wrong.

Consider this. About seventy-five thousand police lineups take place every year. Statistics show that between 20% and 25% of the time the eyewitness identifies a suspect in the lineup that the police know isn’t correct. So upwards of 25 out of 100 people are falsely identified by the victim as the suspect in a crime we know they didn’t commit. In experimental studies where people are exposed to mock crimes the eyewitnesses tend to do exactly what Jennifer Thompson did: even though the real suspect isn’t in the lineup they finger someone who best resembles who they remember. Of the hundreds of people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence 75% were imprisoned by inaccurate eyewitness identification.

The point of the Jennifer Thompson story is just one among many that shed light on memory “construction.” Basically studies suggest that our memory tends to capture the “gist”–the general features–of what happens and our unconscious mind fills in the details. Hugo Munsterberg sums up memory construction basically like this: You remember the gist, your unconscious mind fills in the details and you believe the results. The salient idea here is how remembering an event, recalling it, can reinforce a false memory, as in the case of Jennifer Thompson. As you think back about a memory and you construct it and believe you’re remembering it correctly you then keep remembering the “constructed” memory, not necessarily what actually happen. You’re not remembering the event, per se, you’re remembering the memory.

In other words, as you recall an event you tend to remember the gist and then you unconsciously “fill in the details” and then you believe the entire memory even though some of the important details are inaccurate or false. Many times, especially in events long past, we remember the gist (and some of the details), but more significantly we remember the emotions involved in the event. And of course the emotions can be the most powerful part of a recalled event, which in-turn can drive us to “construct” more memory which may turn out to be entirely false.

Now why is memory construction or reconstruction this way? Well, studies suggest that memory retention is analogous to how computers store imagines. Computers compress images for storage. This means that only the key attributes of the image are actually kept. When you pull the image up from storage (your memory) the computer (your brain), based on the limited information it has from the compressed file, will predict and fill in small details of the stored image that were not kept. If you were to look at your stored image in a thumbnail size it would “appear” very accurate and clear. However, if you blow up the image you would notice detail errors and bands of solid colors where the computer software (your unconscious mind) predicted wrong.

There is also the issue of memory “addition.” We’ve all had that feeling of recounting a memory and being told, or shown, a part of it didn’t happen, or at least not in the particular way or in the particular event we’re recounting. We’re conflating two events or even adding in color, contour, and actions to our memories from various other related or unrelated events stored in memory. Research has also shown that memories can be implanted through a process of what I’ll describe as priming and suggestion. Our memory, like people in general, is open to manipulation.

Now this post isn’t trying to suggest that you should always doubt your memory. For the most part our memories are fine in getting through life and recalling events. We may not get all the details right and depending on the amount of time that’s past, remembering the gist of what happen is good enough for reminiscing. I think the main point to take from the research on memory is that we should approach our memories with a degree of humility and caution depending on what remembering means. If you’re writing a memoir, or blogging about life, or telling stories over wine then getting the gist and filling in the details is, well, being human-all-to-human. It’s just part of the good sport of life. (You can, of course, enhance the accuracy of your memories by finding supporting evidence and corroborating events with other people.) But if recalling from memory has serious implications you need to be extra cautious and be mindful of the possible errors and distortions that may be present.

Reference links:

On the Witness Stand: Essays on Psychology and Crime

Eyewitness Testimony can be Problematic at Trial

Police Lineups Start to Face Facts: Eyes can Lie

Searching For Memory: The Brain, The Mind, And The Past

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Chapter 3, Remembering and Forgetting, of Dr. Mlodinow’s best selling book is the impetus and guide for this post. He has upwards of around 40 sources supporting his discussion of memory. It’s an excellent book! )