“Tell the jury what you saw," the prosecutor asks the man on the witness stand. We have seen this happen many times in movies and in crime shows on TV and read it in scores of crime novels. Nothing is as convincing to a jury as an eyewitness report.
We know from Caro’s fascinating post a few months ago, though, how unreliable the hindsight of eyewitnesses can be. If you missed her report or (ahem!) don’t remember it well, you can find it here:
This morning, while fixing myself breakfast, I listened to an episode of my favorite radio show. It's called Radio Lab and reports on social and physical science and often about how they intersect and interact. All the episodes are available as podcasts, so I can tune one in whenever I want to hear something to stimulate the little gray cells. This morning, it was the show called "Memory and Forgetting,” which deals with, among other things, some notions very useful to the crime writer. Like the fact that memory is dynamic. One does not put away one’s experiences like storing a can of tomato soup in the kitchen cupboard—with the ability to take out the exact same thing you put in.
Decades before the scientists proved what really happens to memories, Fredrick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner instinctively knew that the more often one accesses a memory, the less likely we are to remember it accurately. Viz--
Those two characters must have been truly in love and often thought back on their love affair. That’s why their memories of it are so different. Science can show us that now.
This means that the more the police repeatedly question the witness, the more degraded will be the quality of the testimony. But maybe that is what the investigators want?
And memories can be planted. Scientific investors have been doing that quite successfully for a long time. All it takes is to tell the subject about a childhood memory reported by, say the his parents or by her older siblings and, bingo, most people will report details of the scene, filling in with memories of other places, the mall where they “remember” having gotten lost. What never happened begins to feel absolutely real.
If you want to hear the radio show in question, you can find it here: (I warn you, you will likely become addicted to Radio Lab and be a smarter person for it.)
At the very least, if you listen, you will learn that the human memory—while precious beyond words and the source of our sense of ourselves—is not one hundred percent reliable. Try to keep that in mind.
Annamaria - Monday