Our Deceptive Memory
I spoke with a university classmate early this morning. We were glad to connect because it’s been a long while we touched base. Little wonder he couldn’t wait for daybreak on my end. He was at work, saw another classmate, collected my number and called immediately.
During our discussion, he mentioned something about the ‘walkway’. I was certain about some details in Block 10 but he was not convinced. He felt that place in Unilorin didn’t have the features I gave to it. Right there on the call, I went on social media in search of pages bearing the school’s name. I wanted to confirm I am right. I merely went on this voyage to look for evidence that he is wrong.
I was disappointed. I was stupefied to discover that I am wrong. Block 10 didn’t have these features. The features belong to Block 8.
How could I be wrong? I was going to the walkway before I got into tertiary institution. I spent 5 years in this place studying engineering. I spent an inordinate amount of time in Block 10 on fellowship activities — I practically slept there on some days. I still spent many months going in and out of this place before NYSC. How was I wrong?
It’s another lesson in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.
The single most critical fact is that our memory stores feelings, not facts. And our brains constantly rewrite our memories, throwing away stuff we don’t care about and inflating stuff we do.
You get mugged. The police show you a lineup. One guy who isn’t your mugger looks more like him than the others. Your brain immediately replaces your fuzzy image of the real mugger with the fresh image of the poor guy in the lineup, and then when you point to him in court later and say “J’accuse!” you feel completely certain and at peace — because he really is the guy in your memory. He just isn’t the guy who actually mugged you.
I have read of a person, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, who can implant false memories in a significant percentage of people. She is an expert in what is called memory hijinks.
This fact is scary and humbling — and has huge implications, both legal and personal. Those memories feel so real, so reliable, so perfect. They just aren’t.
According to hundreds of studies over the past 30 years, there is almost nothing less reliable than what an eyewitness thinks he saw. Of the 297 cases that have been overturned by DNA evidence in the United States, more than 70 percent were based on eyewitness testimony.
Those witnesses were not liars or jailhouse snitches but ordinary people utterly convinced that their memories were accurate.
Like my mum always prays (in Yoruba): May we not travel on the day the road is thirty for blood.