Monday, 3 June 2013

The mystery of memory

This is definitely in colour. Sort of.
Human memory is a strange and wonderful thing. We can't help but think of what we remember as fact - but in reality we need to, erm, remember that memory is a totally artificial construct of the brain, not a video recording of the world. And it is often wrong.

I had a wonderful of example of this at the weekend. I was doing one of my regular appearances on the Saturday show of the excellent local radio presenter Mark O'Donnell. On my way in to BBC Wiltshire, I was listening to the show, as I like to be able to fit in with any discussion that has been taking place. Mark was asking listeners to recall when they first saw colour TV. Two separate listeners said the first thing they saw in colour was the 1966 World Cup final - always remembered in the UK as England won. Even I, not exactly a sports fan, watched it, though in black and white as we didn't get a colour set until around 1970.

However, a niggling doubt set in. 1966 seemed very early for the introduction of colour. So as I sat in the car park, before going into the studio, I did a quick Google search and discovered that according to a BBC website, the first colour broadcast was of Wimbledon. In 1967. Both listeners were describing false memories. This was fascinating and Mark got the listeners back on the line, where they had to admit that they couldn't be quite sure.

What is likely to have happened is that they have seen colour images since and combined the two in their memory. Memories are both faulty and not fixed and permanent. I pointed out the example of the remarkable experiment undertaken in the early years of the 20th century that I describe in Extra Sensory:
On December 4, 1901 there were as a horrendous incident during a seminar on criminology at the University of Berlin. As Professor Franz von Liszt gave his lecture, one of the students interrupted to give an alternative viewpoint to the professor’s “from Christian morality.” A second student jumped up and disagreed profoundly. He said that he was fed up of with these Christian morality arguments. The first student was incensed. He pushed the desk over and strode over to his opponent, pulling a gun from under his coat. There was fight, the two students wrestling for control until the gun went off. The second student fell to the floor, apparently dead.
Not surprisingly, the rest of the class was in shock. Von Liszt picked up the gun and asked for attention. He apologized, telling them that he had staged the event in order to perform an experiment. He now wanted everyone present to write down exactly what they had seen. Still shaken, they all obediently wrote out witness statements. And here’s where it gets interesting. The versions that the students gave differed wildly. This was no distant memory and featured no ordinary everyday event. They were giving their recollection of something amazing that had been seared on their memories just minutes before.
When the different reports were compared there were, for example, eight different names given for the person who started the fight. Across the observers there were wildly differing accounts for the duration of the event, the order in which things happening and how the whole scene finished with von Liszt’s explanation. Some were convinced that the gunman had run from the lecture room – which he hadn’t. He had remained standing over the body.
 My point in describing this was that there is an exact parallel with those who remember seeing remarkable events like spoons that they thought they saw bending on their own with no one touching them under the influence of performers like Uri Geller, again dramatic events that they believe they have witnessed. There is very good evidence that we can’t believe what people 'have seen with their own eyes' if the only information we have is their testimony. Without clear video evidence, for example, such recollections are practically worthless.

The same, frighteningly is true of witness evidence in court (which was von Liszt's main point). A jury puts a lot of weight behind what a witness says they saw - and yet the fact is that it is amongst the least reliable of the evidence that is likely to be presented. We really need to change our legal system to take account of this - and we have known this for over a century.

Luckily, memories of the World Cup are not going to put anyone in prison. But it still is a reminder of just how uncertain memories really are - and how remarkable the human brain is.

Image of the 1966 World Cup champions' statue from Wikipedia

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