NBC News anchor Brian Williams apologized for his erroneous account of being aboard a helicopter forced to make an emergency landing after being hit by enemy fire while reporting on the Iraq war in 2003. Williams blames the fallibility of human recall for the error. How can the neuroscience of memory (and false memory) provide insight?
“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams told the Washington Post. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.” Williams’ bewilderment is perhaps understandable. We all know that memory is fallible.
Eye witness testimony has been shown often to be false, even though the witness firmly believes his or her account of what they personally experienced. Rapists sent to prison on the basis of a victim identifying the attacker without any doubt, have been found to be innocent through DNA evidence years later.
“I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy, Williams says in the Washington Post article. “I feel terrible about making this mistake.”
This is the same remorse and disbelief that shakes the victim of a rape who is forced by facts to accept that her memory was false.
To understand false memories one must first understand what a memory is and what it is not in terms of brain function. Memory is not a recording. A recording of our day-to-day experiences would be worse than useless; it would be counterproductive. Memories are fabrications, and they have to be.
“That hole [in the helicopter] was made by a rocket-grenade, or RPG. It punched cleanly through the skin of the ship, but amazingly it didn’t detonate.” This account by Williams we now know is entirely false, but consider for a moment the following.
What if this picture of the helicopter with a hole pierced through it was indeed a snapshot of a true experience embossed in the mind’s ‘memory bank.” Even if it were accurate, this picture is not a memory. This picture would be much like a single frame snipped out of a movie reel. Without context, sequence, and significance in relation to other experiences, there is no memory of what had transpired.
Consider all the various sights, sounds, tastes, smells, emotions, that must be combined together to form a coherent memory, and assembled in the proper temporal sequence and in meaningful relationships between these new experience and past experiences that are essential to form a coherent memory. These multiple sensory inputs and the other aspects of mental processing required to associate emotions and other events with the new experience, must somehow tie together multiple mental functions taking place all over the brain into one scene, which we call a memory.
Memory researchers call this a schema. How this assembly is accomplished is still poorly understood, but this stitching together of a mental scene is the essence of what a memory is.
One of the brain’s remarkable abilities is that it can fill in missing information to connect the dots and form a coherent memory. We can recognize a specific individual from a skilled cartoonist’s squiggly line. This mental filling in is where false memories can begin to form.
Secondly, a memory needs to be continually updated. Of what use is an outdated image of a person in our memory in recognizing that individual now or in the future? Even a picture of a loved one from years ago surprises us because we have completely forgotten that they once looked that way. That memory has been erased.
We constantly update memories according to new information, and much of this happens while we sleep. Memories are not recordings; they are fabrications.
Can Williams’ false report be understood in the context of a false memory? Consider that Williams is a reporter. His function and purpose while on the scene in Iraq was to record facts and to do so accurately. There is no opportunity for false memory in this situation. Just as a scientist would never falsify data, because doing so would completely undermine their objective, neither would a reporter. Researchers do sometimes fudge data, but scientists do not. Likewise, there is not and cannot be any false memory in the mind of a reporter.
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