Evaluating Memory: I Remember It This Way

Over the last several months, we have had an opportunity to watch a social and political drama play out as the alleged victim and perpetrator traded allegations and denials under the umbrella of the selection of a United States Supreme Court justice. The last time this occurred was during the hearings to appoint Judge Clarence Thomas to the court in the 1990s. Evaluating the memories of individuals can be critical in determining the veracity of each side of the issue.

In the current debate, we are left to examine the memories of a fifteen-year-old girl some thirty-five years later and the current denials of the alleged abuser. Because of their preconceived biases, it wasn’t surprising that after the testimony almost no one changed their beliefs relating to who was telling the truth. What we can say for certain is there are only two or three people who know the real truth about that evening.

The FBI has been tasked with doing follow-up interviews to try and shed light on the situation and likely to avoid some political heat for the politicians. We know the professional interviewers from the FBI will do a better job than our politicians who have to pontificate rather than search for the truth. Even the questioning system set up for the congressional interview was flawed if one was really searching for the truth. Let the Republican-hired prosecutor ask questions for five minutes, then stop and turn the stage over to the Democrats for five minutes—much more a show than a search for the truth.

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Memory Science

While the political system used to vet candidates in Congress is clearly flawed, the differing memories are something we should examine more closely. We have all probably noted that memories can change over time as we retell and perhaps embellish a story for humorous reasons. Memories can be contaminated by the media or others who had their own thoughts or assumptions on the incident. Sometimes an event told by someone else changes over time and becomes our own.

A memory is not like a video recording of an event that clearly captures all the details in a chronological order. Elizabeth Loftus, PhD, a renowned memory researcher, illustrates a more accurate version of memory: “Memories don’t sit in one place, waiting patiently to be retrieved; they drift through the brain, more like clouds or vapor than something we can put our hands around.” She means that our memories are distributed throughout the brain and may be linked by one or another of our senses to the event. Clearly, this is an oversimplification of an extremely complex storage-and-retrieval process.

If we had these bits and pieces of drifting memory floating independently, it is easy to see how new memories can be shaped or created in their entirety. Over the years there have been a multitude of cases relating to repressed memories. These repressed memories often are “recovered” decades later as a result of therapy sessions with well-meaning counselors. Many of these memories become more and more bizarre as the questioning focuses on the “repressed memory.” In some child-abuse cases, the initial tale moved to orgies, satanic rituals, or killings as the probing continued, mixing fantasy with bits of reality to create an entirely new memory.

Understanding the human mind is a complex process, but scientists think that the memory may begin with the recognition of objects in space forming the context of the memory. The details are spread much like a net with separate locales, and then the memory is imprinted. If each memory that we have has its own separate net of details crossing, overlapping, and perhaps replacing parts of the previous net, we can see how this analogy could contribute to a changing memory of an event. During therapy, many therapist do not recognize the inherent suggestibility of their clients and may reinforce delusional ideas or implant entirely new memories.

Betsy Petersen, in her book Dancing with Daddy, describes the sudden recovery of her repressed memory. She said that while she was jogging, “A thought came into my mind as if it had been projected on the screen: I’m afraid my father did something to me.” In an attempt to explore this image further, she spoke with her therapist. ‘I have a story to tell you,’ I said to Kris, my therapist, several days later.’…’I don’t know if I made it up or if it’s real.’ She listened: ‘It feels like a story to you,’ she said, ‘because when something like that happens, everybody acts like it didn’t.’ ‘You mean it might really have happened?’ Now I wasn’t sure I really did want to know. ‘There was a good chance it’d happened,’ she said.”

The therapist went on to point out her strained relationships with family members, sexual difficulties, and the lack of closeness with her children all indicated abuse. Peterson went on in her book: “I had no memory of what my father had done to me, so I tried to reconstruct it.…I put all my skill as a reporter, novelist, and scholar to work making that reconstruction as accurate and vivid as possible. I used the memories I had to get to the memories I didn’t have.”

When examining the initial recovery of the memory, an investigator should consider how the therapist or interviewer developed the final memory. Often the therapist may have expectations or a predisposition that a client’s problems are caused by sexual abuse. Some therapists may ask the patient to go home and consider the possibility they had been sexually abused and to attempt to recover the memory of events. These memories can then be reinforced by asking suggestive or leading questions, further developing untrue details.

Memories can also be introduced using what is being dreamt during the clients sleep cycle. These dreams form “indicators” of repressed memories, which the therapists’ work to retrieve other repressed memory fragments. These dreams may be reoccurring, nightmares, or dreams containing strong feelings, which the therapist believes are indicators for the repressed memories. The question really must be considered, were the dreams real or did they and the resulting fragments come from the therapist’s attempt to resolve the client’s anxieties?

A number of years ago psychologist Brooks Brenneis did a literature review looking at dreams and actual traumatic events. What he found during the literature review was that dreams about actual traumatic events did not reflect the actual traumatic event. Brenneis concluded, “There was no empirical evidence to substantiate the idea that specific traumatic experience predictably passes untransformed into dream content.”

The process of altering or introducing a memory deals with the use of leading questions or even repeated attempts at retrieval during which certain words help set the tone of the event. There has been research into memory that clearly establishes that the first words in a list are best recalled during later attempts at retrieval. It’s the words in the middle of the list that are most often forgotten; concrete nouns are better remembered than abstract nouns; words that can be categorized are better remembered than those not categorized. But these laboratory attempts do not generalize well from the laboratory into the everyday world of victims and witnesses. However, some of the early work of Dr. Loftus showed how slight differences in how questions are asked and the words used have implications on the accuracy of a witness’s observations. In addition, when incorrect or misleading information was presented to a witness after the event, these also compromised the witnesses’ accuracy.

The Cognitive Interview

One of the most successful advances in real-life interviewing was the development of the cognitive interview by R. Edward Geiselman and Ronald Philip Fisher. The cognitive interview developed a series of retrieval strategies that provided greater levels of detail without contaminating the original memory or introducing errant details into the victim or witnesses story. Some studies of the cognitive interview have shown retrieval gains of 40 percent with respect to accurate retrieval. The cognitive interview was later applied to real-life fieldwork settings using police officers as the interviewers with continued success. There have been other successful developments with memory retrieval in the areas of lineup research and interviewing child witnesses. The child witness is especially vulnerable to improper questioning since they are so suggestible and lack the life experience to understand the implications of their witness statements.

In the next several columns we will discuss the complexity of human memory and implications for the interviewer who is attempting to recreate the events of the situation as accurately as possible. This will be important for any interviewer who is looking to identify the truth and actively wishes to avoid problem areas that can contribute to inaccurate details or the introduction of false details into an individual’s story.

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