In casual conversations with friends, people are naturally nostalgic and often like to talk about memorable moments they’ve had. Everyone likes to remember the times they have enjoyed with friends and family while also remembering times of trouble and difficulty getting through day-to-day life during periods of grief. But for better or worse, could our memories be letting us down? Are we really remembering past events in our lives or are people merely remembering what they want to? Some recent research has pulled up some interesting figures that are different than what many would imagine.
According to Psychology Today, neuroscientists have been able to show that when humans remember something, they naturally will reconstruct the event in their heads. They also mentioned how people will suppress memories that are painful, and that memory may just be adaptive to the situation, and therefore has to be considered as unreliable. While it is not surprising that people suppress painful memories away, it is unsettling to me how the memories of normal people cannot necessarily be considered reliable.
The New Yorker also had an article just last year stemming from an experiment on how people remember tragedies. According to the article, back in the late 1980’s, Prof. Ulric Neisser of Emory University began to look at how people reacted to “flashbulb memories”. He put this in context by asking his students to write about what they remembered when they heard about the Challenger explosion in 1986. His students were asked to do this the day after the tragedy. Two and a half years later, he again asked the students who completed the first reflection to make a second one. It seems pretty surprising that when the psychologists rated the accuracy of the students on a 1-7 scale, the average was less than 3. But on a 1-5 scale for confidence, the students rated themselves on average at about a 4.17, showing their confidence/inaccuracy.
I thought this result was somewhat surprising. Granted, I don’t have any background knowledge on human memory, but given that so many people trust the memory of others fairly easily, this study would definitely show otherwise. One would think that people would have the same memories about their reaction to a national tragedy, be it the day after or 11 years later. With that being said, it also makes it comical that statistically, the students can be quite confident with how inaccurate they end up being. In my research, I could not find a more recent study than after 9/11, where the neurologists had pretty similar findings, generally speaking.
Human memory can also fog things up in our legal system. The Psychology Today article also reported that in the United States, false confessions can happen in just under 25% out of 289 criminal convictions in an average year that were eventually expunged due to DNA evidence. Why does this occur? Possibly out of fear or intimidation from others. But you can’t rule out that it relates back to memory, because even if a suspect were lying, they would still have to remember their story and have a motive for doing so.
Eisold, Ken. “Unreliable Memory.” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 21 Oct. 2016.
Konnikova, Maria. “You Have No Idea What Happened.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 04 Feb. 2015. Web. 21 Oct. 2016.