Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

Your Most Vivid Memory? Maybe It Never Happened

Why we can't trust even our clearest recollections.

As I wrote in a recent blog post, moments of extreme emotional intensity can trigger indelibly vivid memories. I cited the case of a reader, Alice from Jupiter, who wrote that she could clearly recall a number of thoughts racing through her head as a fatal accident unfolded. I took her at her word. But how can we be sure that this kind of intense memories is accurate? As reader Sarah writes on her blog at the Pratt Institute,

Did Alice from Jupiter really ask herself all of those questions before the car hit her, or did her mind plant them there as she relived the moment over and over? I would imagine that most New Yorkers also felt a lesser but still extremely high sense of danger and fear after first hearing about 9/11, but even these memories have proven to be susceptible to distortion over time.

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The point is well taken. Though memory feels like a straightforward function -- something happens, our mind registers and stores it -- in fact it's a dynamic process. Each time we access a piece of information, we're likely to change it. A memory that seems crystal clear could very well be wrong.

An early researcher into this phenomenon was psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who in 1974 published a paper with John Palmer describing an experiment in which they showed test subjects footage of a car crash, and then asked them how fast the cars had been moving prior to impact. When asking the question, they used words that were, to a greater or lesser extent, freighted with connotation: "contacted," "hit," "collided," "bumped," and "smashed." A week later, they conducted a follow-up interview, asking whether any broken glass had been present at the scene of the accident. Those who had answered violently-phrased questions the week before were significantly more likely to answer yes. (In fact, there had been none.)

The key finding was that the subject's memories of what they'd seen was influenced by language used after the event. Subconsciously, the information encoded in the questioners' words had leached into the subject's beliefs about what they'd seen.

Okay, you might say: but a memory culled from watching a film is certainly going to be less immediate and vivid than a real, life-changing accident. Does the same principle still apply?

Yes. Even though strong memories have a way of feeling super-real, they too are prone to change. One of the unfortunate consequences is that witnesses in criminal cases can swear up and down that they have seen or heard things that they actually did not. According to the Innocence Project, a group that uses DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions, "eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing." As Laura Engelhardt writes in the Stanford Journal of Legal Studies,

Bias creeps into memory without our knowledge, without our awareness. While confidence and accuracy are generally correlated, when misleading information is given, witness confidence is often higher for the incorrect information than for the correct information.

There's no way we can be sure that the events in our memories really happened the way we recall. As much as we may wish otherwise, details get altered, added, or deleted, and sequences of events get shuffled.

The dynamic is especially powerful when someone else is intentionally trying to elicit a particular memory. A disheartening example of this effect occurred during the "Satanic abuse" epidemic of the 80s, when a number of therapists managed to convince hundreds of people that they had been molested as children. These therapists told their clients that they had suppressed memories of the abuse, and encouraged them to dredge the details out of their subconscious minds. As eventually became clear, these patients were not recovering lost memories, but inventing new ones.

This malleability of memory has rather disturbing implications for the way we view our existence. If you're like me, you like to imagine yourself as a stable psychological entity -- a being shaped by experiences, whose present tense is framed by memories of what happened in the past and expectations of what will happen in the future. If my memories are inaccurate, does that mean my sense of self is compromised? Is the world I carry around in my head fatally corrupted by delusion and misinformation?

All is not lost, however. If we want to keep our memories accurate, there is one technique that I've found effective: while the memory is still fresh, write it down. We can at least have some expectation of accuracy when it comes to our recent memories, which are too fresh to have been significantly over-written. During periods of my life that felt particularly momentous or confusing, I've often kept a journal. Going back later and reading what I've written, I've time and again been stunned at how different my memories are from what actually happened.

To get back to the case of Alice from Jupiter, who recalled thinking a whole slew of thoughts as an accident was unfolding: since she told her skeptical sister about her experience soon after the incident, her recollection was probably accurate. As it so often does in cases of intense fear, her perception of time really did slow down.

 

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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