The Science Of Memory: Why You Can't Recall Every Detail Of The Past


Memory is dynamic and complex. It's one of the most powerful capacities of the human brain. Without memory, we wouldn't even know ourselves. It's how we identify those we love and recall all we have learned and experienced.

I was 13 years old on September 11, 2001, an eighth grader in the Washington, DC area. I remember essentially every single aspect of what I did that fateful day, or at least, I think I do.

Yet, if you were to inquire as to what I did on September 10 or 12 of 2001, I wouldn't be able to provide you with any information whatsoever.

This is the strange and mysterious way memory works. We record and store what's important, and discard the rest. Much of this has to do with the way the brain functions.

Our minds are structured to record and store information gathered during periods of heightened emotion. It's called "emotional memory," and it's why you remember monumental moments in your life many years after they've occurred.

Yet, memory also frequently betrays us, even when it comes to some of the most pivotal events of our lives.

Your memory plays tricks on you.

Even if we believe, with absolute certainty, we have remembered some event or experience with clarity and accuracy, we often completely misremember things.

In recent weeks, headlines have been dominated by a controversy surrounding the reporting of news anchor Brian Williams. For quite some time, he's been telling a false tale in regards to events during the Iraq War.

Williams claimed that, while in Iraq, a helicopter he once traveled in was struck by an RPG and forced down.

None of this was true. A helicopter had, in fact, been shot down, but Williams wasn't on it. He'd been on the helicopter traveling behind it, and may not have even gotten to the scene of the downed copter until an hour after it happened.

Williams was eventually outed for lying by one of the soldiers who was there that day.

Ultimately, Williams admitted he'd been wrong and offered a personal apology to the soldiers involved. Williams also went on to claim he didn't mean to conflate the events, but essentially argued he'd misremembered them.

This claim seems dubious at best, and Williams' credibility as a news reporter has been irrevocably damaged, regardless.

With that said, this doesn't mean people don't misremember things. This is precisely why psychologists and neuroscientists have come out in defense of Williams. Speaking with Think Progress on the subject, memory expert and psychology professor William Hirst stated:

There's a large amount of evidence [that shows] that we confuse things that we imagine — the thoughts that go through our heads — and in many cases we begin to think that they actually happened. You can be very, very certain of your memories, and they could be wrong. And it's not just details you forget. It's a huge difference. You can invent whole new episodes.

Simply put, sometimes, we embellish events without being cognizant of it. Moreover, the more often we try to recall an event, the more likely we are to misremember it.

Our memories of events change over time.

In regards to Brian Williams, the late, great, David Carr recently wrote:

Stories tend to grow over time and, if they are told often enough, they harden into a kind of new truth for the teller. ... It's useful to note that Mr. Williams initially reported the story fundamentally as it had happened — although the soldiers on hand say he exaggerated the danger to himself even then — and over time, as he retold it, he moved into the middle of it, so that the story became something that happened to him.

None of this necessarily means we should believe Williams' claims that he didn't lie, but, perhaps, we should exhibit some compassion.

Williams is only human. Not to mention, it's now come to light that Fox News host Bill O'Reilly likely made false claims surrounding his experiences during the Falklands War.

Mother Jones released a story claiming that O'Reilly stated he reported from the war zone in the Falklands, when, in fact, no American correspondents were able to reach this area.

Did O'Reilly also misremember events? It seems much less likely than Williams, who was somewhat involved in the events he claims to have inadvertently conflated. In O'Reilly's case, it appears he lied altogether about being in the war zone. He was in Argentina at the time, but not close to combat.

The fact of the matter is, we are all bound to misremember things, particularly when it comes to traumatic events.

Whatever the truth, the fact that our brains and memories are exceptionally complicated still stands. In other words, people are inherently flawed, and we should reconsider how harshly we judge and condemn one another.

It's understandable that some people might call for both Williams and O'Reilly to be taken off the air permanently. Regardless of what happens, we should take note of the fact that news reporting will never be perfect. It's exceptionally difficult to provide timely and accurate information on events as they're happening.

Now that we have thrown social media into the mix, the news is often even more convoluted.

Yes, we are right to hold news anchors and politicians to high standards, as these individuals are meant to inform and lead the general populace. Yet, we also can't forget they are shackled with the same frailties and foibles as the rest of us.

None of us are infallible, particularly when it comes to our memories.

Citations: You Have No Idea What Happened (The New Yorker ), Partial Recall (The New Yorker), Brian Williams Retreading Memories From a Perch Too Public (The New York Times), NBCs Brian Williams recants Iraq story after soldiers protest (Stars And Stripes), Is it possible Brian Williams really misremembered (New York Magazine), Neuroscience suggests that Brian Williams may in fact be misremembering (PBS), Cut Brian Williams a break on Iraq claim (CNN), Is it possible to misremember getting shot out of the sky A scientific explanation (Think Progress), Bill OReilly Has His Own Brian Williams Problem (Mother Jones)