Think back to a time in your life that was particularly memorable, or maybe even catastrophic. How vivid are those memories? How many details can you recall from that hour, day or week? It is likely that you are able to remember quite a bit of what happened. As we have learned in class, memories are more easily formed when they have emotional significance. This is thought to be the case in part because of our amygdala’s proximity to the hippocampus, and how the two seem to be intertwined in recalling emotionally charged memories. Some might even find it cruel that you can remember the atrocities of your life before you can remember the piece of important information that you repeated to yourself about a thousand times before taking a test. That is why elaborative rehearsal utilizing your emotion works better than the simple maintenance rehearsal we often use. In the New Yorker article, “You have no Idea What Happened” they delve into the topic of poignant emotional memories, and like me, you might be surprised at what they found.
Ulric Neisser is a cognitive psychologist that, in 1986, was interested in researching the accuracy of people’s memories about the explosion of the Challenger. It turns out that 2 years after the event happened, people were very bad at recalling the details of what happened to them that day, who they were with, what they were doing, etc. However, they were very confident in their false memories. The findings of Neisser piqued the interest of cognitive neuroscientist, Elizabeth Phelps, who would then devote her career to studying emotional memories, and why we get them wrong so often.
Phelps would go on to posit that we do remember the core details of an emotional experience, however, we do not recall the peripheral details as well. As I remember from class, Dr. Rettinger gave the example of the tiger attacking you at the watering hole, and the fact that if you were asked to recall how many stripes the tiger had, you would likely not know, or more appropriately, not care. This is what likely happens to us in the case of emotional memories. We are able to recall the thing that was scary, or sad, but we aren’t as capable at getting every single little thing right. That’s why when someone says they, “remember it like it was yesterday” they almost definitely don’t, they just think they do because the important part of the memory is almost palpable to them. Research has shown that small things that we like to think we know, are inaccurate at best, and gravely dangerous at worst. What I mean by the latter is that eyewitness testimony is still admissible in court, and is often the primary means for getting a conviction.
As this article and the supporting research suggests, we are confident in our false memories, so it is conceivable that someone would convict someone of a crime they have very little memory of simply because they are confident they know what they saw. Unless they were hallucinating (which is another conversation entirely) it is reasonable to believe that they do in fact know what they saw. However, what they don’t know is the more important thing to focus on. What they don’t know is what the person’s face looked like, what they were wearing, how tall they were, etc. These are all irrelevant details when your emotional memory tunnel is tuning your sensory systems to obtain only the most important things: whether you’re in danger, where the danger is, and how you get away from it. So the irrelevant details, that get a tiny portion of our attention, are what get people convicted who might have been innocent.
If there is one thing that I have learned in our class, it is that our brains and visual systems are incredible at creating order in the face of ambiguous situations. When we don’t see an entire object, or person, we fill in the rest. When a word is misspelled we don’t even notice because our brain has already corrected the mistake and we skimmed right by it. By the same logic, we might fill in the remaining details of an event we are recalling, especially if we are recalling an event that happened a while ago. We get the central point, like the Challenger exploded, or we got attacked by a dog, and we forget the details quickly and then make them up later to retain continuity in our memories. Think about your most vivid memory, and then consider the possibility that much of that memory has been forgotten and manufactured over the years. It wasn’t yesterday, and if it was, write it down.