Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How many of your memories are false?

It turns out that even the 50 or so people who have Superior Autobiographical Memory are susceptible to errors and to false memory syndrome. There is a good article in The Atlantic about what the error-proneness of memory means for journalism and other non-fiction writing. It also discusses research with those folks who can recall what they had for lunch on the second Wednesday in February 30 years ago, and what was playing on the radio while they ate it.

Over the years, I have interviewed witnesses of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and rushed to the scene to obtain anecdotes from witnesses from a catastrophic train crash, or the Virginia Tech shooting massacre. It makes sense that the people I spoke to would have intimately remembered such shocking, emotionally charged events. Some call this “flashbulb memory.”
Even those can be unreliable. In 1977, 60 eyewitnesses to a plane crash that killed nine people were interviewed by Flying magazine. But they had differing recollections. One of the witnesses explained that the plane “was heading right toward the ground—straight down.” Yet photographs showed that the airplane hit flat and at a low-enough angle to skid for almost one thousand feet.
There is no absolute guarantee that everything in a nonfiction narrative is the absolute truth, “but you as the writer have the obligation to get as close to the truth as you possibly can,” Meyer said, “and the only way to do that is to report the living hell out of it.”
Harrington, now a professor of literary journalism the University of Illinois, once said, “Truth is a documentary, physical reality, as well as the meaning we make of that reality, the perceptions we have of it.”
A true story is always filtered through the teller’s take on it.

One of my clinical supervisors had a sign over his desk that read, "Don't believe everything you think."

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