August 5, 2011 by David K. Sutton
Less Than Total Recall
People are who they are, and behave as they do because of unique combinations of personal life experiences. The memories we create from these experiences are then used to formulate assumptions, opinions and beliefs. But assumptions, opinions and beliefs also play a role in the very formation of these memories.
A topic I find interesting is perception and eyewitness accounts of events, particularly extreme events like 9/11. To use that tragic event as an example, many people interviewed on camera that day described the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center as a small plane rather than a jumbo jet. Why did numerous people witness the same or similar inaccuracy? The answer isn’t simple as this is an area of varied and complex scientific research. There isn’t any one reason or simple answer. But what we do know is that our past experiences and our expectations play a large role in the formation of our memories. We like to think of our brains as capturing devices, preserving details scene by scene for later retrieval. The truth is that our brains simply do not work that way. Our memory retrieval has as much to do with assumptions and longstanding beliefs as it does with the actual world around us. And in fact, our memory retrieval can change over time as our own assumptions and beliefs change. With this understanding, it does give one pause when thinking about how much we rely on eyewitness accounts in our judicial system.