This attracted quite a bit of controversy over at my own site. I’d like to start fresh here. In another spot the point was raised that Christine Blasey Ford should know about the research in cognitive science about the unreliability of memory and been more cautious. I was not surprised in the least, because it is psychologists who are the leaders in believing that memories can be “organised,” “associated,” and even “recovered” in therapy. It is a field in which the left hand usually does not know what the right hand, or the ears, or the chin, or the shinbone is doing.

There is some discussion of the notion of credibility in the comment section at AVI, if you are interested in that subcategory.


The reliability of memory came up a lot recently, and it is worth noting that we do not remember past events anywhere near as well as we think we do. Even flashbulb memories, which we feel very certain about, deteriorate and even change over time.  If this puts you in mind of Dr. Ford’s testimony, remember that forgetting could apply equally to Justice Kavanaugh. I am noted for exceptional memory of past events, and am in my element at reunions, where people are gratified that I remember that they took a third on balance beam in 1969, or played the flute in 1963.  Yet I have found many places where I was certainly wrong, because some photograph or document shows up that contradicts my memory.  People of long memory are more likely to go to reunions, I would guess, and I also think I was likely to befriend those who had some similarity of mind. I thus have a store of memories rendered uncertain, because in comparing notes with these people, we don’t entirely agree.  Sometimes I will realize in a flash that Ted Kontos’s or Gary Hicks’s memory of our first night at Manville dormitory includes an important detail I had entirely forgotten, and theirs is the better account.  Other times I remain convinced the other person has it wrong, and is conflating two events.

There will be a terrible irony about all this going forward in the Kavanaugh confirmation controversy. This will be an event which people will claim to remember and will hold those memories as important parts of their political story in the future. Yet we are already getting it wrong, each of us laying down the memory according to our previously held beliefs, and this will get worse. Things that we read as theories about Ford’s motivations we will regard as something that someone somewhere proved. Ambiguous statements which Kavanaugh explained will come to be regarded as things he avoided answering. People who thought Ford’s delivery was calculated will believe it was all an act.  People who thought Kavanaugh’s verbal defense of himself was partisan will remember it as louder and angrier than it was, and will ascribe to him statements he didn’t make.

It has already happened to me.  I had associated Senator Murkowski’s statement with Senator Collins’ statement on the basis of a few sentences of each and was disparaging of the latter.  A friend corrected me that I had misjudged Collins badly, and when I went back to look at it, that was abundantly so.  I had associated them in mind before.  I therefore assumed they would have similar takes.  I had already started remembering that they had similar takes, even though this is not so.

5 thoughts on “Memory”

  1. This is why Lying Chrissie should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for unequivocally lying to Congress about two issues — her lie about her inability to fly, and her lie about the timing & reason for installing a second door on her Palo Alto house. Then everyone’s future recollections will include the knowledge that a jury of her peers found Lying Chrissie guilty of lying about events much more recent than her teenage drinking bouts.

    Prosecuting Lying Chrissie now will also be salutary for other activists who might think about coming forward in the future with timely but unprovable politically useful allegations. Put disinfectant on the wound, so to speak.

  2. I too have excellent memory of past events, to the extent that family members sometimes ask me to remind them what happened when. Yet I find that documentary and especially photographic evidence when available usually shows my memories to be highly distorted.

    A striking example in my case was my memory of the trees and streets in my old neighborhood, which seemed to have changed very significantly when I visited for the first time in many years as an adult. But when I looked at family photo albums that same day it was obvious that nothing had changed, the terrain appeared almost exactly as it had when I was growing up.

    So, do I have a worse memory than most people or are most people’s memories highly inaccurate? Based on my observations of other people’s memories, which usually have seemed at least as inaccurate as mine about events I thought I remembered well, I’m guessing it’s the latter.

  3. My wife has an amazing memory for instances where she was not happy or insulted or some other negative occurred.

    I remember the day Roosevelt died. I was home sick from school and called down stairs to my mother who burst into tears.

    I think I have a pretty good memory but she is always correcting me.

  4. Human consciousness and the memory systems/architecture that support it consist of such massive kludges, workarounds, and re-purposings that it’s a bloody wonder any of us are even considered slightly sentient and self-aware. There are a lot of people out there who I’m not really too sure about, when it comes to their ability to actually pass a rigorous Turing test… Kardashian viewers, I’m looking at you

    One of these days, we’re going to have perfected non-biological adjuncts and cybernetic prostheses for the mind, and when that happens, oh, boy… We are going to be in for some severe shocks, vis-a-vis just how reliable our memories are. My guess is that the reality is that we’re creating a lot of the details in our memories from whole cloth, as we recall things. Gross details, some of which aren’t at all relevant, are what actually get stored, and then the pattern-recognition software we build up over the years does the rest. Which is why I think everyone I meet seems to keep using the same faces, over and over again–It’s not that they look that much alike, or that there are type-categories of facial feature collections, but that the recognition software in my head keeps repeating the same shortcuts time and time again, so that I keep “seeing” the same face over and over again, while the reality is that they’re all a lot more unique than that process thinks they are.

    When we finally break down what consciousness and sentience actually is, and how it works? I am pretty sure that we’re all going to be absolutely horrified at how messy and fragile the whole thing really is. It’s actually quite astonishing that it does as well as it does, and lasts as long as it manages–But, for all that, it is still an ephemeral phenomenon, as fragile and wonderful as a child’s blown bubble on a spring morning, and as evanescent. Appreciate you while you still have “you”, and marvel at the whole thing.

  5. One of these days, we’re going to have perfected non-biological adjuncts and cybernetic prostheses for the mind,

    I’m more interested in vision adjuncts.

    Retinal prostheses are even cost effective.

    Compared to gene therapy; Argus II is less costly with a demonstrated favorable outcome, though the vision is yet artificial.

    Interesting that paper is from Iran.

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