The Dubious Witness: Does New Research into the Functioning of Memory Make All of Human Recollection Unreliable?

This week I read two seemingly unrelated news stories. One was inspired by the recent accusations made by Dylan Farrow against Woody Allen. In this article that appeared today in The Daily Beast, author and researcher Cara Laney argues that “It’s Shockingly Easy to Create False Memories.”

As you likely recall, there were a number of scandalous cases of alleged child sexual abuse in the 80s and 90s, some of which sounded unlikely to have really occurred. Pedophiles are comparatively rare, and because of what they do, they usually operate in absolute secrecy. Collusion among pre-school teachers in sexually abusing the children in their charge therefore sounded a bit far-fetched. This case and others like it seriously called into question the reliability of children as witnesses, and furthermore suggested that it was possible to influence kids, through the power of suggestion, into believing something really happened even when it didn’t.

A few days ago, I saw this article on Science Daily: “Your Memory Is No Video Camera: It Edits the Past with Present Experiences.”

A forthcoming study in the Journal of Neuroscience will detail how researchers discovered that “memory is faulty, and how it can insert things from the present into memories of the past when those memories are retrieved. The study shows the exact point in time when that incorrectly recalled information gets implanted into an existing memory.”

According to the results of the study, memory does not merely record what has happened to us; rather, it serves as a tool for our adaptation and survival:

“Our memories adapt to an ever-changing environment and help us deal with what’s important now… Memory is designed to help us make good decisions in the moment and, therefore, memory has to stay up-to-date. The information that is relevant right now can overwrite what was there to begin with.”

In other words, it is not only children who are unreliable witnesses; we all are. We are all capable of rewriting the past to suit our present needs, even though at times it may be difficult to uncover the reasons why we should prefer one recollection over another.

I’m not going to attempt to decipher the truth of the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen case; only the two of them will ever know whether the allegations are true. Or will they? If the new research into the functioning of memory has been interpreted correctly, it is actually possible, however unlikely, that neither of them will recall with accuracy what the exact nature of their relations were. Certainly it’s plain to see that if Woody Allen did commit these abuses, he would have solid reasons to rewrite his memories of them. It’s just as easy to suppose, given the filmmaker’s well-documented relationship with Soon Yi, that Dylan Farrow could have shaped her own childhood memories to reflect that knowledge.

What is truly terrifying about this is that not only can we no longer rely on the testimony of others; we can’t even rely on our own. Suppose that Dylan Farrow does have false memories. Her pain is no less real because of that. In fact, her pain is undoubtedly greater, because the truth of what she has said has been called into question. Even if her recollections are accurate down to the smallest detail, we can’t ever be sure of that because we know now that this is not how memory works.

The implications for eyewitness testimony are mind-boggling. The depositions of witnesses have long been known, of course, to be subject to vagaries that can’t always be explained by fear of consequences, imperfect recall, or acts of self-interest. Now the whole system is called into question. If Ms. Laney is correct, witnesses can be led to lie under oath merely by being asked the right kinds of questions, testimony that will not be false because the person giving it will believe it to be true. There may be such a thing as an objective “truth,” but it is of little use to us if we can’t know what it is.

Which leads me to wonder whether we need a new approach to our search for truth when it comes to human memory. The rewriting of memories is supposedly not random, after all; it is presumed to be an adaptive feature of human behavior. So perhaps if we wish to uncover the reality of a recollection, what we need to do is assess the adaptive purpose of internally reworking the memory in question. Certainly there could be value in reconfiguring or perhaps even repressing a painful memory if it permits us to move forward with our lives. But isn’t it also possible that we might mentally recast a bad experience to make it more terrible than it was? For example, if you got into a car accident because you were driving too fast on a rainy night, mightn’t your memory actually amplify the terror you felt when you heard your tires screeching and saw the guardrail closing in? Wouldn’t it be possible that you would remember the pain of that broken leg as being ten times worse than it really was? Because increasing the horror of that memory is going to help you to survive; in the future you will drive more slowly when it’s dark and wet.

There may, in fact, be good reason why isolated stories regarding verifiable child abuse, taken from the news, have led to rashes of such accusations. In a backhanded way, this process of reworking memory may be protecting our children. Because a child who believes that he or she was abused while alone with a caregiver – even when he or she wasn’t – is going to learn something from that: adults can’t always be trusted. And the sad fact is, sometimes that’s a lesson a kid needs to learn.

Which brings me to one final thought – is the brain’s ability to rewrite memories in any way related to certain mental disorders such as anxiety and PTSD? Conditions that are triggered by real-life happenings are clearly heavily dependent on the sufferer’s recollections of those events. Do people who suffer from nervous disorders do so because they have more intense memories of traumatic events, or because they lack the ability to reconstruct those events in their minds into kinder, gentler forms? One thing is certain. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the role that memory plays in shaping us as human beings and determining the course of our lives. Memory defines who we are and who we think we are; it is an integral part of the peculiar fiction of being human. 

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