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False memories, lies and the limitations of the human brain

Our post last week focused on the fallibility of human memory. It is tempting to conceptualize our memories as a recorded video that captures the objective record of what we have experienced. Unfortunately, our memories are far less accurate than that.

The problems with memory became a national discussion this week when NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was accused of lying about an event that he supposedly experienced while covering the Iraq war in 2003. Although public criticism has been swift and severe, there are numerous brain scientists and researchers who believe his memory may simply have failed him.

First, some background on the "lie" Mr. Williams told. In 2003, Williams was in a helicopter flying behind another helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Over time, his retelling of the story changed, eventually resulting in a version of the story where he was in the helicopter that was hit by the RPG.

If his changing of the story was a conscious decision, it could be criticized as unethical, given his status as a highly respected journalist. But Williams is certainly not the first person to exaggerate details of a personal anecdote.

It's quite possible that in subsequent retellings of the story over the past decade or so, Williams may have accidentally changed details to the point where he came to believe that the most current version was the truth.

Human memory is not like pushing "play" on a recording. In fact, a given memory is not stored in a single place within the brain. Rather, our memories our reconstructed every time we recall them. And during this process, they change a little bit because we incorporate new information with each recall. We also tend to fill in details that we can't necessarily remember.

So what does this story have to do with criminal defense? Well, the connections are at least two-fold. First, what we know about the fallibility of memory speaks to the importance of statutes of limitation. Like most states, Wisconsin has no statutes of limitation on homicide, but does impose limitations for other crimes.

Second, the Brian Williams case reminds us that memories are not perfect records of history, especially when the events were experienced under fear and stress. Lengthy interrogation sessions can cause suspects to say things that are not true or even misremember details, resulting in a false confession.

If you are ever arrested for or suspected of a crime, it is crucial to have a criminal defense attorney by your side before agreeing to answer any questions.

Source: The New York Times, "Was Brian Williams a Victim of False Memory?" Tara Parker Slope, Feb. 9, 2015

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