Brian Williams possible case of misremembering.


While covering a story on the Iraq War in 2003, NBC news anchor Brian Williams was a passenger in a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. His story has since changed. Recently, after being questioned on the validity of his story reporters found out that it didn’t really happen – that he was in a following aircraft not impacted by the grenade. Many think that he purposefully twisted the story and lied to his viewers. This however, may not be the case if looked at from a psychologist’s perspective. In many past cases, people have misremembered events big and small. This article by the New York Times uses psychological research to counteract the argument at hand. According to this article, Mr.Williams may have actually misremembered this traumatic event.

The phenomena of misremembering happens to millions of people on a regular basis, including famous figures such as Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney. It never occurred to me that this problem could be something so controversial because it seems like a natural part of the brain’s processing. The brain performs so many tasks at any given moment that it’s nearly impossible to remember every event and detail correctly. I often find myself recalling childhood memories one way when they may have unfolded another.

These false memories, according to Harvard Psychologist Daniel Schacter, happen because our brains mean to tell stories about the future. “If memory is set up to use the past to imagine the future, its flexibility creates a vulnerability — a risk of confusing imagination with reality.” This may be an explanation for Brian William’s case because he imagined the rocket-propelled grenade striking the helicopter which would in turn justify the flexibility proposal. It did indeed create vulnerability mostly because according to Taylor Beck, author of Making Sense of Memory, emotions are the basis of memories. This situation created intense emotional arousal which would have made it simple for Williams to think the rocket struck his helicopter directly.

The part of the brain responsible for these emotional attachments to events is the hippocampus. Beck describes it as a “simulator”, creating movies in the mind of memories, drawing from a memory store to build new episodes. However, the brain does not store memories in just one part – it stores them in scattered fragments, which is why it is so difficult to gather all of the correct information for every memory. After several iterations of memory retrieval, the brain may mistake the original memory with newer memories from factors in the environment such as media. This may lead to the storage of false memories that can be told time and time again as if they happened in real life. The biggest issue here is that the individual thinks these memories are true. This is yet another explanation as to why Brian Williams’ false memory account for him supposedly twisting his story to mislead his viewers.

Although I am in no way certain what truly happened in Brian Williams’ case, countless sources support the fact that this may have been an instance of misremembering by the brain that happened subconsciously.

2 thoughts on “Brian Williams possible case of misremembering.

  1. cbudd33

    This is really interesting! Our lecture about memory has continued to surprise me! What really amazes me is, as you mentioned in your post, that our memories are totally reconstructive. Each time we tell/remember a story, it changes a little bit, and it could possibly end up to be completely different than what actually happened. Kind of like the common saying, “if you continue to tell a lie, you’ll start to believe it yourself”. The fact that we change our memories (into false memories) based on prior knowledge/goals/mental state is not only fascinating, but slightly scary. How much of what we remember in our lives is actually true? Especially for this man’s case- if he did actually have this false memory, it must be terrifying for him to believe such a drastic event happened to him when really, records show that it did not. Learning about memory continues to amaze me. Great post.

  2. aestero

    I thought this was really interesting as well. When Dr. Rettinger discussed this in class a couple weeks ago, at first I thought that Brian Williams intentionally made up parts of the story when he first told people about it (to maybe seem ‘better’ or attract sympathy from others), and therefore realized he had to tell the truth this time around. It was very interesting to learn that our brain does this unintentionally and that it happens to everyone on a daily basis. After learning that the brain does so many things at one given moment, it was very understanding to learn that it is possible to misremember certain memories, especially traumatic ones. I too, catch myself recalling childhood memories a certain way in which I believed it may have happened, when it might have happened a whole different way. I enjoyed reading this article and this blog post especially learning about how our memory works!

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