Are You Sure of that Memory?

Take this scenario: You just came home from a long day at work. You throw your keys on the table next to the door and proceed to fix yourself a drink. You hear a shrill scream coming from next door, so you run to the window and see a man pulling a young girl into the alley. You yell out the window at the perpetrator, pick up the phone to call 9-1-1 and run for your rifle in the hall closet. You run outside after the assailant, but he is gone and the girl is sitting hysterically on the ground where he dropped her after you yelled.

The girl did not see him. He was behind her as he was dragging her toward the alley. You only saw him for a split second, but you recall seeing a white man with long-curly hair, wearing a dark running suit. He weighted approximately 190-200 lbs, and was around 6 feet. Or was he? How certain are you that you could identify this man if you had to in a line-up, or in court?

“The Innocence Project,” a non-profit organization that has reopened cases of people convicted before DNA evidence was available, states that “Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.”

In 1984 a North Carolina college student was raped. After the attack she said, “I studied every single detail on the rapist’s face. I looked at his hairline; I looked for scars, for tattoos, for anything that would help me identify him. When and if I survived the attack, I was going to make sure that he was put in prison and he was going to rot.” A few days later she picked out a man as her attacker, and later testified against him, and he was convicted.

Eleven years later, the man she picked out was released because DNA evidence proved he was not her assailant. She had actually been face-to-face with her real attacker at a second trial and swore she had never seen him before. She was so convinced she was right that it took definitive evidence for her to admit she had originally made a mistake.

How can this happen? When the victim was so certain the man she identified was the right one? How can memories be so off target?

Part of false eyewitness memories come from the way police departments gather and present their evidence — placing thoughts in the mind that interfere with actual events. Neuroscientists believe there are two kinds of perceptions: The perception of the actual event itself (ordinary cognition); and the perception of how accurately one has perceived the event (metacognition).

University College of London researchers conducted studies that show those who had more accurate metacognition had more neurons (gray matter), and better neural connectors (white matter) in their frontal lobes. This area is where the working memory of the brain lies, and regulates the ability to multi-task within the brain’s framework.

“When there is a positive correlation between eyewitness confidence and accuracy, it tends to occur when a witness’s confidence is measured immediately following the identification, and prior to any confirming feedback.” Researchers suggest that, in keeping with this finding, a statement of a witness’s confidence, in her own words, must be taken immediately following an identification. Any future statement of confidence or certainty is widely regarded as unreliable, given the host of intervening factors that have been shown to distort it as time passes.

Stress is another factor. “The effect of stress on eyewitness recall is one of the most widely misunderstood of the factors commonly at play in a crime witness scenario.” Studies have consistently shown that stress has a dramatically negative impact on the accuracy of eyewitness memory, a phenomenon which is often not appreciated by witnesses themselves,” states Yale psychiatrist Charles Morgan. Morgan and a team of researchers tested trained, military school students on their ability to identify their interrogators following low-and high-stress scenarios.

In this study, each student was face-to-face with an interrogator for 40 minutes in a well-lit room. The next day each were asked to identify their interrogator from a photo line-up. (most common form of police line-up in the U.S.).   Subjects with high-stress interrogation were wrong 68% of the time, compared to only 12% from the low-stress scene.

Researchers have found that the rate at which an eyewitness memorization declines is very rapid, within 20 minutes of the initial memory and begins to level off over the next two days. This is in contrast to the common view that memory declines as time passes.

So, now how certain are you that what you remember is actually what happened?   For this reason, working with a memory expert, or memory trainer, would be beneficial in learning how to retain the memories you make — especially in a stressful situation. Heaven forbid the accuracy of your memory would be the deciding factor in sending someone to prison!

This article was shared by 2 time USA Memory Champion, Ron White.

Memory Training

Resources: — Are You Sure You Know What You Know? –

Wikipedia: Eyewitness Identification   –

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