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Memory does not always serve, and that's no lie

Posted - Sep. 14, 2004 at 7:20 a.m.



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For decades, Ulric Neisser would tell the story of how he heard of the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor from a news bulletin that interrupted a radio broadcast of a baseball game.

Then, about 40 years after the fact, Neisser realized something troubling: There is no baseball in December. His memory couldn't be right.

Does that make Neisser a liar? Some sort of twisted, deluded fabulist? Far from it.

Experts say it actually makes him completely normal. A growing body of varied research is asserting that personal memory, despite everybody's thorough confidence in their own, is a stunningly unreliable resource susceptible to innocent and accidental errors.

Indeed, as the confused nation watches Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry wrangle bitterly with a group of fellow Vietnam veterans over their differing accounts of events in 1969 in Southeast Asia, the conclusions of talk-radio pundits and others is that someone must be lying and that there's such a thing as right and wrong in such cases.

Yet the only certainty that memory experts know to be true is that memories are uncertain, fallible and corruptible. So chances are high that people on both sides are ''misremembering'' some pieces of the 35-year-old story.

Kerry says he pulled Special Forces officer John Rassmann out of the jungle-bound Bay Hap River in a hail of enemy gunfire; the veterans seeking to discredit him say there was no gunfire and that Kerry exaggerated his role and injuries to enhance his chances at heroism honors.

''People have their agendas, and both sides want their view to be true, but that doesn't necessarily mean that anyone is deliberately lying or fabricating,'' says Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, editor of the journal Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. ''Memory serves us pretty well most of the time, but it's not a perfect system.

''When somebody says, 'I know, I was there, he's a liar,' that's just very naive considering what we know about memories in traumatic situations.''

The trouble stems from the popular misconception that the brain records everything it observes with objective clarity. People wrongly believe that the truth is in there somewhere, footage in the brain just waiting to be cued up with the accuracy of an instant replay.

In reality, research shows the brain plays all sorts of tricks. People frequently come to think of moments they see in films as a real part of their own history or come to believe events that happened to close friends or relatives actually happened to us instead.

''We don't like the idea that our memories are filled with bits of fiction, but it's true for everyone, and we ought to accept it,'' says University of California-Irvine memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, known as the ''diva of disclosure'' for her work helping crime witnesses remember more accurately.

Eyewitness accounts are a particularly troubling area with disturbing implications for the judicial system, Loftus says.

A study in 1996 by the U.S. Department of Justice analyzing 28 wrongful-conviction cases in which the convict was exonerated later by DNA evidence showed that faulty eyewitness testimony was the major factor in the jury's decision to convict.

The problem is so serious that, in 1999, then-Attorney General Janet Reno issued a 34-page guidebook for law enforcement with tips on how to enhance the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. Among the suggestions:

* Avoid having witnesses pick suspects out of en masse lineups; instead have them examine potential suspects or their photos one at a time.

* Ask open-ended questions, not suggestive or coercive ones.

* Separate witnesses and instruct them to avoid comparing notes.

Neisser, who ''misremembered'' his Pearl Harbor experience, happened also to be a prominent memory psychologist and became fascinated by his 1941 faux pas. He published his experience in one of his books and then received a torrent of letters from people suggesting that football, not baseball, was on the radio that Sunday in December.

''I had just confused a football game with a baseball game, it seems,'' said Neisser, now professor emeritus in the psychology department at Cornell University. ''Why'd I do that? Well, I was a big baseball fan my whole life. This was a question of my shifting my memory slightly to make it fit better. It was a better story to me that way. And I believed it.''

After this discovery, Neisser went on to conduct an experiment. The day after the explosion in 1986 of the space shuttle Challenger, he had several college freshmen write down their recollections of how they learned the news. Three years later, he had the same students, by then seniors, once again write down their memories. The result: More than a quarter of the students misremembered their own story in significant ways, and most had changed some significant details.

One woman originally wrote that she learned the news from friends while sitting in a class; three years later, she said she learned it from a news bulletin on TV. Many students refused to reconsider their now-firm recollections even when confronted with their own handwritten accounts from the day after the event.

''Our memories are us,'' Lilienfeld says. ''It's very integral to who we are. Partly because our memories are imbedded in who we are, they are inevitably colored by our personality, our expectations, our lives. It is somewhat unnerving to realize that things we remember distinctly might not have happened or happened that way.''

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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