Rowan Jaines

What is memory and can we trust it? These questions have plagued philosophers since the dawn modern thought. The competing beliefs about the answers to these questions have formed the skeleton of research design, theory, analysis and ethics in social, political and psychological scholarship as well providing rich material for literature and the arts.

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This is perhaps because we tend to use memory to understand events that are happening in the here and now, and to make informed decisions about what choices to make next. For example, if yesterday you were soaked in a rain shower on the way home, based on that memory you may well pack an umbrella in your bag today.

This phenomena also occurs in more complicated and subtle ways, since without the ability to make sense out of relationships between previous events and what is unfolding in the here and now, life becomes a meaningless swirl of sensory data over which we have no control. Memory constructs identity and a sense of agency. Taking this into account, it makes sense that the process through which memories are made and concerns around how ‘truthful’ this process is are so central to both science and the arts.

Although questions around the validity of memory have been important in research, perhaps the most significant place these debates have been thrashed out is in the courts of law, where memory is a key tool to decide the guilt or innocence of a defendant.

The award winning podcast Serial explored this in visceral detail. The podcast revisits a 1999 murder case in which a 17 year old high school senior Adnan Syed is accused and convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. The show’s host Sarah Koenig takes us back through a myriad of conflicting evidence and unreliable memories, engaging with the apparent impossibility of discerning truth from memory.

In the first episode, Koenig features a series of interviews showing participants struggling to remember very simple details about the last few weeks of their lives. She then moves on to interview Syed’s former classmates and friends, and the inconsistency of sequences and details such as the presence of a pay phone, or overheard conversations, produces a web of confusion.  

Of course in this case, as in many legal trials, some of the people interviewed in Serial might be lying for a variety of reasons. However, it is also clear that even people’s honest recollections of events are just not very good. Studies have shown the fallibility of eyewitness accounts, especially regarding stressful events.

It would seem that although the confidence of witnesses about their memories might be high, their recollections are often flawed. Other experiments have shown that individual’s recall of events were significantly biased by the words used to ask about the recollections. Furthermore, numerous experiments have verified that certain methods of questioning can plant false memories.

Although many people believe that memory works like a recording device, that you record the information and play it back as necessary, decades of research in psychology has shown that this simply isn’t true. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus explains that memory actually works more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.” Loftus’s work has shown that when you feed people incorrect information about their experiences you can distort and even change memories.

The problem with this is that we’re all constantly absorbing new information and in doing so, each time we revisit a memory we change it and it changes us. This is particularly important when we consider legal and mental health practice around childhood abuse, which when handled without due care can result in emotional harm and overt miscarriages of justice.

Understanding memory as a flexible social process has huge general implications for legal practice, social work, mental health practice, journalism and research, as well as our personal lives. We must bear in mind how greatly we can influence other people’s recollections of past events and also how our own memories are responsive to the passing of time and new information.

It also highlights our need for documentation and discussion. Studies have shown that if two or more individuals talk regularly and honestly about life decisions people think better and can help each other recall previous thinking more accurately. Humans are social and adaptive animals, not recording devices, so it makes a lot of sense that these ‘quirks’ in our memory skills can be managed by ongoing communication and trusting relationships.

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