Andrew Poulos said you very well could question every memory you’ve collected and nurtured and preserved. This in part may explain all those arguments around the dinner table during family holiday gatherings when conflicting stories arise.
No one may be lying, said Poulos, an assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University at Albany — even if the tales don’t match up.
“Most memories are reconstructions of what we believed happened. They are imperfect,” Poulos said. “They are flexible — malleable. The passage of time can affect the quality of how we remember something.”
That’s why local memory experts have warned against rushing to paint “NBC Nightly News” anchorman Brian Williams as a liar over his false recounting of his involvement in a 2003 helicopter attack in Iraq.
“It turns out after a century of science, [we’ve learned that] memories are not a perfect recording like DVDs or CDs,” said Christopher Chabris, an associate professor of psychology and co-director of the Neuroscience Program at Union College who co-authored the book “The Invisible
Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.”
“I don’t know if [Williams] was lying or not,” he continued. “It seems entirely possible this is an ordinary memory distortion.”
Poulos agreed: “He easily could have just remembered inaccurately.”
Williams had maintained that the helicopter he had been riding in had been hit by ground fire. In fact, another helicopter in front of his had been struck. He later told Stars and Stripes, which broke the story, “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”
Time and stress are believed to play roles in inaccuracies in memory. Unrelated to the Williams scandal, Poulos is currently doing experiments on rats and mice examining how different levels of stress affect memory. He said some levels can be so debilitating that “you don’t learn” — and therefore can’t remember — but in more mildly stressful or emotionally evoking cases your senses might be sharpened, creating a stronger memory.
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney sees that in the courtroom, saying the level of trauma can affect a person’s ability to recount an incident. He explained that people process memories differently.
“People’s perspectives and their ability to recall are all different,” Carney said. “Some people are better recalling than others, and some people are betting communicating.”
Chabris said there are numerous examples of public figures misrepresenting themselves in recollections. He pointed to Hillary Rodham Clinton stating during her campaign for president in 2008 she had been under sniper fire in Bosnia 12 year earlier, only to later admit she had been in error.
“I don’t think we should overreact; it’s very basic human nature for memories to be imperfect,” he said. “The right approach is to lighten up.”
However, Chabris said while there may be a benign explanation for why Williams gave a false accounting, that does not exactly exonerate him.
“The right question to ask Brian Williams, a journalist, is why didn’t he check [the story] out,” Chabris said.
Memory, the experts explained, is taking in data through a self-centered lens and stored in different parts of the brain that control different senses. Each time it’s retrieved, it can change, a little or a lot. Over time, a memory can mutate, leaving truth in its wake.
“From a scientific perspective, I’m always critical of memory, because that’s what we do,” Poulos said.
So can any of us trust any of our memories?
“You can question all your memories from childhood,” Poulos said, “but it’s probably not worth it.”
Which brings us back to the dinner table squabbling over some distant family dispute. The truth is, nothing is probably going to get resolved.
“Fighting over a memory is the biggest waste of time ever,” Chabris said. “In reality, nobody ever gets it exactly right.”