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Human Memory: Vivid Doesn’t Mean Accurate

Apologist Frank Turek gives the 9/11 attack as an example of a vivid memory. Can you remember where you were and what you were doing on September 11, 2001? How about the same date a year earlier? Why is one date memorable and the other not? And what does this tell us about the accuracy of the gospel record of the remarkable life of Jesus?

Important events impress themselves on our memories, but there’s a big difference between a vivid memory and an accurate one. “This American Life” provided a great example a few weeks ago of how our memories fool us—a startling example, in fact. Let me briefly summarize it.

Emir’s story

Emir Kamenica was born in Bosnia in 1978. Yugoslavia began to unravel when he was 13. Though his father was killed, the rest of the family was lucky to get out of the war and make it as refugees to Atlanta.

Their new life was no paradise. Their apartment was dirty, and Emir made no friends. He was one of a couple of dozen white kids out of 900 in his high school. He felt the racial tension both in his neighborhood and his school. His English was terrible, and he practiced by translating passages from his favorite book, The Fortress, into English.

The one bright light in his school experience was Miss Ames, a student teacher in his English class for only a couple of weeks.

For one assignment in her class, Emir took a shortcut by submitting a translated passage from The Fortress that he found especially moving. The book was in Bosnian—who would find out? Miss Ames was impressed and said that he needed to get to a better school. By good fortune, she had a job interview at a local private school in a few days, and she took him along.

To Emir, the school was paradise. He had practiced a short line: “I’m a Bosnian refuge. My school is really bad. Please, can I go here?” For her own interview, Miss Ames had brought his essay as an example of what inspired her to be a teacher.

Though student applications were due months earlier and financial aid for that year was already arranged, the school highly valued diversity, and a Bosnia refugee would be a nice addition to the student body. Strings were pulled, and Emir made it in. After graduating there, he went on to Harvard as an undergrad. Then he earned a PhD from Harvard. And now, at 35, he’s a professor of Behavioral Economics at the University of Chicago.

This Bosnian refugee became a success all because one teacher took the time to help him out, fooled by his plagiarized essay. She mistook him for a genius and got him into a private school, which got him into Harvard, which launched a successful academic career.

This was Emir’s defining story, and he told it over and over. He contrasted it with that of his one friend from public school, a fellow Bosnian, who had no guardian angel. The friend got into trouble, spent time in jail, and went back to Bosnia.

Miss Ames didn’t get the job, and Emir never saw her again. As an adult, he tried to find her a couple of times, without success. He didn’t know her first name and wasn’t even sure of the spelling of her last name.

… the other side of the story

“This American Life” hired a private detective and found Miss Ames. Her version of the story was … different.

She had been a new teacher but wasn’t an intern. In fact, she had been Emir’s full-time teacher for an entire semester. His English was “tremendous,” and, in talking to his other teachers, Miss Ames realized that this sophomore was beyond senior level in all subjects.

She also disagreed about the character of the school. It wasn’t a ghetto school but had a great mix of students, like a teenage UN. She remembered about 20% white kids (later confirmed by fact checking).

And the essay that Emir plagiarized, the central fact to Emir’s story? She didn’t even remember it. It played no role in her decision to push him into the private school.

Emir never saw Miss Ames at the new school, not because she didn’t get the job, but because that trip had never been for a job interview. It had all been for him.

After Emir, Miss Ames’ story took a bad turn. The school administration was annoyed that she had poached their prize pupil, and they exiled her to whatever amounted to Siberia in that school district. After another year, she quit teaching.

(I’ve written more about our fallible brains here.)

The punch line of her story was that Emir had been any teacher’s once-in-a-lifetime student. He could’ve still gotten a great education if he’d stayed at that public high school, been at the top of his class at a good regional college, and then gone to Harvard for the PhD. After leaving Atlanta, she didn’t keep track of his career except by looking for his name in the Nobel Prize list every year.

For both people, but Emir in particular, these stories weren’t incidental but were important stories in their lives. His story was of plagiarism, luck, and a guardian angel. Her story was of innate gifts, inevitability, and martyrdom.

That doesn’t mean that Emir’s story wasn’t vivid–it was. It also doesn’t prove that it was false. What it proves is that at least one story was false.

A vivid memory may not be an accurate one. Remember that the next time someone points to the gospels and insists that so remarkable a story as the resurrection must’ve been remembered accurately despite the long decades from events to first writing.

A church steeple with a lightning rod on top
shows a total lack of confidence.
— Doug McLeod

Photo credit: Joaquin Villaverde

About Bob Seidensticker
  • smrnda

    Thanks for this one – there’s been a lot of research for flashbulb memories (‘where were you when you heard about 9/11?’ or ‘when Kennedy was shot’ for people a bit older) and the results are that they aren’t that accurate.

    What’s more, you can check into the research on this one, our level of confidence in our memories isn’t proportional to their accuracy either. Elizabeth Loftus did a lot of work here.

    Another issue is that a group of people, attempting to recall events they all witnessed, instead of correcting a person who gets it wrong, might actually end up doubting their own memories and then the one mistake turns into what everybody remembers.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Another issue is that a group of people, attempting to recall events they all witnessed, instead of correcting a person who gets it wrong, might actually end up doubting their own memories and then the one mistake turns into what everybody remembers

      Confidence is infectious? Or maybe drama is. If your recollection of the story is more fun than mine, that alone might nudge me to accept your account.

  • GCBill

    I remember one study on 9/11 memories where 50% of respondents said they were watching the news when the 1st tower was hit. Of course, the first collision wasn’t *on* the news – it’s what prompted the coverage in the first place. We do have footage of the 1st collision, but it was never shown in real time.

    So as a canonical example of memory accuracy, 9/11 is an exceptionally poor example.

    • Kodie

      I don’t know what the study says specifically, but people could have been watching the news at the time the first tower was hit, when they switched over to the coverage. You probably mean they remember seeing the tower when it was hit because the news showed that footage as soon as it was available and frequently, and they got mixed up.

      • GCBill

        The latter explanation is indeed what I meant. I actually like the way you explained it better, heh.

        • Kodie

          It depends on how the question was asked and any follow-ups. I figured out what you probably meant, but I had the news on in another room that morning. I found out a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers and I assumed at the time that it was a small plane and an accident, by the time I had passed the tv. If you are going by my memory, I would gauge 2-3 days before that footage was released of the first plane, but I don’t really know. What I do think is that the news plays a huge part in what people remember about large events. I know* I watched and saw the second plane hit live, and I watched until both towers fell. At some point, I made it back to the computer, and people on the forums I was active on at the time were telling people to go watch the news! What people do when there is a problem is turn on the tv or internet, and however it is covered on the channel of their choice probably influences their memory of events.

          When the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, I did not get good tv reception, and I didn’t have cable. The images “seared” into memory for a lot of people did not sear into mine. I listened to reports on the radio. But it was also in Oklahoma. If there was a subsequent manhunt, it happened far away from where I lived. I could get the information and move on.

          Until 9/11, nothing that already happened was going to keep happening the way it did on 9/11/01. One bad thing that happened turned into several more during coverage, and it wasn’t really clear if it was over, and it was something like a week before any regular programming resumed. It was on the news, even locally (well, my “local” news channels were NYC at the time) for days and days, and it’s all people watched. Of course it played with their actual memory. People who casually had the Today show on while they got ready for work now were watching the news, and pretty much repeating the same few things, for several days in the aftermath, as if there was going to be more information than we had at the time, or some other city would be targeted, and we had to watch the news so we’d be vigilant when something new happened, but of course, nothing else did. Because at that time, someone just happened to be making a film in the city and captured the event of the first plane hitting, they came forward and that became part of the narrative. People just get greedy for more information, too.

          But that is kind of what the news does now – if it doesn’t have any new information, it keeps talking anyway. People who just tuned in need to be caught up, but people who were already tuned in tend to keep seeing the same few things cycle through over and over, as if the next part of the story is imminent or may even be shown on tv. It is kind of gory. I like to know what’s going on, but when it starts repeating, find something else to do. There is another school of thought – if something bad is happening, like, you have to stay tuned to the news out of respect and not do anything else.

          I live in a neighborhood of Boston and I was putting on my shoes when the news preempted regular programming to say something about a bomb at the marathon finish line. I had to go, I was running late for what I do that passes as sort of a job. All afternoon, people were calling in and asking if the classes were canceled, and we said no. Out of some duty toward the victims, or just being put in a bad mood or whatever, some of our students didn’t show up for class that evening. I don’t have images seared into my brain for that one either. Of course, this was a situation with delayed ongoing events nobody really expected after the coverage died down and we went back to normal. We did close for the city-wide lock-down, and that was ok, because the guy was caught not very far away. There’s a difference between closing shop because a murderer/terrorist is on foot close by, and closing shop because we should not be open because people died in an unusual circumstance.

          Last night, I came home and there was a helicopter hovering overhead. It gave me chills until I got inside. I couldn’t wait to turn on the tv and see what’s going on, but there was no information.

          *If my memory can be trusted at this point!

  • Itarion

    Yes, and Tiananmen Square is the story of a man, buoyed by the cheers of a horde of people, standing up to a squad of tanks. Honest. Look, a picture and everything. Not doctored and used in a study to prove just how fallible the human memory is. https://webfiles.uci.edu/eloftus/Sacchi_Agnoli_Loftus_ACP07.pdf Not even a little bit.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      interesting article, thanks. But just to be clear, the doctoring of this photo was done as an experiment, right?

      • Itarion

        Yes, though it kind of morphed into something more. The false picture has been heard of, I think more than the study it comes from. It, and another photo, were “fixed” and used in a double blind to determine if people can spot the fake. They couldn’t.

  • RichardSRussell

    When I was a high-school senior (Class of 1962), Eau Claire Memorial High School was well stocked with terrific athletes. We had the state’s top-ranked football team, and they took the state championship in baseball. And it was largely the same group of athletes who spent the entire season 2nd-ranked in basketball.

    Sure enuf, we made it all the way to the finals of the state tournament, where we ran into the state’s #1 ranked team, from Milwaukee Lincoln. And it was a barn-burner of a finale, back and forth, up and down the floor. The final score — burned into my brain by the bright lights on the UW Fieldhouse scoreboard, which I stared at for a solid minute in disappointment and disbelief — was 90-83 for Lincoln. We’d come so close! And 173 total points was still a phenomenal achievement for a 32-minute game (no overtime), especially in the era before the 3-point shot.

    And that’s the way I told the story for years.

    I attended the tournament again last year, and the program book revealed that that 1962 finale still holds the record for the most total points ever scored in a Wisconsin state tournament game. But it wasn’t quite the way I remembered it. I’d had the final digits reversed. It was really 93-80 for Lincoln. We hadn’t come nearly as close as I’d remembered.

    I could’ve lost a lot of money thru the years betting on the accuracy of my memory of an emotionally powerful event that I’d seen with my own eyes and would “never forget”. So, as Bob says, vivid doesn’t necessarily mean accurate.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Cool story, thanks.

  • RichardSRussell

    I’ll never be able to view that Tiananmen tank picture without remembering the caption somebody later supplied for it: “There are 2 heroes in this picture. Only 1 of them is visible.”

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Huh? The only interpretation that comes to mind for me is that Jesus is there, invisibly giving this guy strength, like the ghostly Jesus who helps kids learn baseball.

      http://cache.boston.com/images/bostondirtdogs//2004/JD_baseball.jpg

      • RichardSRussell

        Hero #2 is the guy driving the lead tank, who could have easily just run the guy down but didn’t.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Ah, thanks. Sometimes I have to have things spelled out.

          Have you seen the video? The driver tries to slide past the guy carrying the bags, and bag guy keeps moving to make sure he’s right in front.

          (Or am I misremembering that video … ?)

        • RichardSRussell

          No, that’s exactly right.

          I also remember that, at the time, someone in the Chinese governmental hierarchy said “The People’s Army will never fire upon the people.” It may be significant that I don’t remember who it was, probably because shortly thereafter the People’s Army started firing on the people.

      • R Vogel

        Wasn’t this Barry Bonds’ defense?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          That Jesus was injecting him with steroids?! That’s an imaginative idea.

          My favorite ghostly Jesus imagine (I wish I could find it again–let me know if you’ve seen it) was a sort of Chick tract from Iceland or perhaps a Scandinavian country. It shows a teenage girl puking on the sidewalk after drinking too much. Who’s there to hold her hair out of her face?

          Jesus.

  • Greg G.

    On a similar note, check out today’s Jesus and Mo .

  • curtcameron

    On a note unrelated to this blog post, I heard you on the Don Johnson radio show a few days ago – you did a really good job with him. It sounded like you two were just getting to the meat of things when the time ran out, and Don apparently didn’t invite you back for a second/third episode like he often does with atheist guests. My guess is that he sensed you were getting the better of him.

    He typically gets atheists who are less thoughtful, and he goes through his “worldview” (I hate that word) shtick and confuses them. His main point is that we should go with whatever “worldview” best explains the evidence, and his version of Christianity explains it all! And there’s nothing better explained by the atheist worldview, so Christianity wins!

    The problem is that I can invent an unlimited number of just-so stories that can explain the world we live in, without holes. What Don needs to have explained to him is that a story needs not just to be able to explain what we know, it also needs to be supported by actual evidence.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Don is an easy guy to chat with, unlike some more prickly Christian radio hosts. His format also allows time to explore the issues.

      My biggest frustration with his position (and I’m not sure how effectively I was able to make this clear) was that we’d first agree that science has questions that it can’t answer. Then he says, “Well, if science can’t answer them, Christianity can!” Which is no answer at all. Where’s the evidence?

      We could handwave a religion into existence and also explain whatever puzzles you like, but why would it be worth believing in?

      (But I think I just repeated your points!)

      • Alex Harman

        Christianity used to answer many of the ones that science answers now; all its answers turned out to be wrong. Why should we expect that trend to change? The God of the Gaps is not a very satisfying explanation when the gaps keep getting fewer and smaller.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Speaking of people who have names like yours, I saw “Unstoppable,” hosted by Kirk Cameron, on Tuesday. Pretty weak. Have you seen it?

      • curtcameron

        I hadn’t even heard of it until just now, for some reason. I just watched the trailer, and it sounds like he’s trying to address the problem of evil. The best minds of theism (and there have been some sharp ones) have been trying to explain that for thousands of years – and now Kirk Cameron has it solved! (Where’s the eye-rolling smiley thing when I need it?)

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          It was partly an info-mercial for Liberty University. I guess they funded it or produced it.

          Yeah, it was a combination of the Problem of Evil (nicely stated, but not resolved) and some Old Testament stories.

          If you’re already on board and you don’t think much, you’ll get a nice pat on the head. For the rest of us, just 2 hours that I’ll never get back.

  • Pofarmer

    The thing about the Gospels is, no one has proven anyone was trying to remember anything at all. It’s more likely that the vast majority of it was simply made up.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      My own vote is that things weren’t deliberately made up (like a lie or hoax or screenplay) but that the authors recorded a snapshot of the beliefs in their church at that point in time.

      That said, the author might well have polished a few things in a “the lie that tells the truth” sort of way.

      And then there are later redactors, and the story gets more complicated …

      • Pofarmer

        Well, yeah, but just because somebody recorded something any number of people beleive, doesn’t mean any of those beleifs rest on facts.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Agreed, but my question is: how much of a lie was it? Was it a deliberate lie/hoax/fiction or the innocent accretion of legend?

          This gets into the (silly) “Why would they die for a lie?” conundrum that apologists like to tie themselves up with. It’s like they imagine that it was a complete fabrication.

          That sounds a lot more likely than the literal interpretation, but my view (that it’s just oral history, with very little deliberate making up of facts) is likelier still.

        • Pofarmer

          We are going to get into what the definition of “is” is territory pretty quickly. For instance, I think the Virgin birth story was wholly made up and added. Why? Well, because Paul knows nothing of it, and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke read just as well without it. Same with the zombie apocalypse jn John. Actually, theres a very good, and fairly short book by Randal Helms called, I think, “The Gospel Mysteries” that goes through and details where each one of the miracles Jesus is attributed with are directly tied to earlier miracles in the old testament. His view is that the Gospel authors were basically going back and mining for prophesies and miracles. This alsomakes sense if you listen to Richard Carriers and Bart Ehrmans descriptions of the Gospels as Greek literature with Greek literary forms. And also, that some of the ideas from the Sermon on the Mount, are ideas from the Greek Septuagint, not the Hebrew writings. So, I think you are going to habe a very hard time divining out what was tradition at the time, and what was the Gospel authors sexing things up a bit. And, yes the whole “die for a lie” thing is stipid. People beleive things that are lies all the time. They also forget to put themselves in the mindset of the times.

        • Pofarmer

          Gospel Fictions is the book. Carrier reccomended it.

        • GubbaBumpkin

          His view is that the Gospel authors were basically going back and mining for prophesies and miracles.

          This is obviously true in the Gospel of Matthew. Whenever he says, “Jesus did X in order to fulfill the prophecy…” you know he’s slinging some more BS.
          I recommend Age of Reason part 3: Examination of the Prophecies by Thomas Paine.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Thanks for the book tip. I just bought it.

          BTW, if you care that your text is scrunched up, you can click Edit and go back and put line breaks between the paragraphs. That’ll fix that cosmetic problem.

        • Pofarmer

          Well thank you for the recomendation, hopefully it’s already on my kindle. I really need to finish ” not the impossible faith” but I’m already convinced and hung up about 2/3 of the way through. Almost half way through “saving bill murray”. Quirky read so far.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          I think the Virgin birth story was wholly made up and added. Why? Well, because Paul knows nothing of it, and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke read just as well without it.

          When you look outside the canon at the infancy gospels, you also see how the Jesus story got embellished over time in the way you indicate. Holes got filled in, etc.

          Curiously, it can work in the other way. The famous 500 eyewitnesses in 1 Cor. 15 can’t have been especially compelling evidence since the (later) gospels don’t add that factoid.

          Same with the zombie apocalypse jn John.

          Matthew?

          theres a very good, and fairly short book by Randal Helms called, I think, “The Gospel Mysteries”

          “Gospel Fictions”? I’ve read that one by Helms. Good stuff—some day I’ve got to incorporate some of that stuff into a blog post.

          And, yes the whole “die for a lie” thing is stipid.

          I’ve written in detail about the problems with this claim here.

        • Pofarmer

          *”Curiously, it can work in the other way. The famous 500 eyewitnesses in 1 Cor. 15 can’t have been especially compelling evidence since the (later) gospels don’t add that factoid.”

          You know, that’s interesting as, for some reason I hadn,t put together that that was an earlier claim by Paul that doesn’t show up later. I think I have read too many apologists who completely jumble the time line. Ehrman is right, it is much more interesting, and correct, to read the gospels as individual stories than to mash them up. Unfortunately, when you do that, the house of cards sort of starts to shake a little.

          You know, that’s interesting, because for some reason I hadn’t put together that was an earlier story that didn’t show up later. When you read apoligists who harmonize all these things into a jumble, it’s hard to keep it all correct time wise.

        • Alex Harman

          Lots and lots of people have died for lots and lots of lies in our history; most of them had been lied to, and believed the lies they were told. It’s rarely the liars who die.

      • David Manhart

        I imagine that the legends were modified, added to, and subtracted by people over time. Look at the internet today how a meme changes. Ideas get modified as they go quite quickly.

        Wonderful article by the way. Thank you for writing it.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          :-) I’m glad it was helpful!

    • Greg G.

      Earl Doherty makes a good case that the early Christians began to believe the Messiah that had clearly prophesied had already come and been cricified in the mythic past. Paul never describes the Acts version os the Damascus Road incident. He never talks about Jesus except what he could have got it from the OT. 1 Cor 15 describes the others as “seeing” Jesus in the scriptures just as he did, a la Romans 16:25-26. That secret had been hidden in the texts for centuries but was now becoming apparent, so the Messiah was about to come soon.

      Mark took much from Galatians and 1 Cor 11. His three main characters are the same three that are sarcastically “reputed” to be pillars in Galatians. Then Mark artfully weaved OT quotes and allusions with the Odyssey through the first 10 chapters and the Iliad for the last 6 chapters using mimesis just as educated Greeks wrote in those days. He also borrowed from the Gospel of Thomas. There’s very little in Mark that doesn’tcome from those sources so there’s no room for “oral traditions”.

      Since Mark is clearly fiction and Matthew and Luke follow him verbatim except for theological reasons while John employs the same stories, they don’t seem to have reliable sources either. Luke even uses Josephus as a source.

      • Pofarmer

        What in luke is borrowed from Josephus?

        • Greg G.

          I’ll leave out some important details while covering a few but here goes.

          Josephus ties the census to the beginnings of the Jewish War and Luke uses it to get Jesus born in Bethlehem.

          Josephus says he used to discuss law with the elders at age 14. Luke has Jesus do it at the magic number of 12 years old. That’s in his autobiography which pretty much eliminates Luke as a first century work.

          Luke also gives the same distance between Emmaus and Jerusalem that Josephus gives but it’s wrong.

          In Acts, Paul’s shipwreck is very similar to Josephus’ shipwreck. Same place, same time of year. IIRC, Josephus even says there were religious leaders being taken to Rome. Paul would fit that description.

          The big smoking gun to me is when Paul is arrested and the officer thinks Paul is the Egyptian who led the sicarii (terrorists) into the desert. That sentence combines elements from three paragraphs (consecutive, I think) in Josephus’ writings. Josephus seems to have invented “sicarii” to describe killers by their knives.

          Google for a review by Richard Carrier on Luke and Josephus. Also search for The Rejection of Pascals Wager and Luke and Josephus for more parallels, details, and cites.

          Luke also seems to have enjoyed Plutarch.

        • Pofarmer

          Thanks.

        • Greg G.

          Hi Pofarmer

          Now that I am not typing with thumbs on a phone, here are the links I mentioned. The first is the Carrier article.

          Luke and Josephus – Secular Web

          The Reliance of Luke-Acts on the Writings of Flavius Josephus

          Edited to fix link on 9/29/13.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          This link may work better for “Luke and Josephus”:

          http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/lukeandjosephus.html

        • Greg G.

          Thanks, Bob. I’m glad to know folks are verifying my claims.

  • David Manhart

    What a poignant article. I am saving this to share with others..

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Can you remember where you were and what you were doing on September 11, 2001?

    I was sitting at my desk at work. I happened to check Teh Internetz for news, and saw articles about a plane hitting the first tower. I recall wondering if it was an accident. Teh Internetz got slower and slower, and I wandered over to another work location, where someone had a TV.

    • KarlUdy

      I can’t remember what I did September 11, 2001 because due to time zones, it was September 12 where I was when the terrorist attacks happened. I do remember that a friend rang at about 3am to tell me I had to get up and watch the news on TV.

  • gimpi1

    This is so true. My father was a survivor of traumatic brain damage, and I got to see the peculiarities of memory up close and personal. Because his short-term memory was virtually non-existent, he simply made up “stories” to explain to himself where he was and what he was doing. Those “stories” might have some basis in reality or not. However, to him they were vivid and accurate memories. I have since realized we all do this, just not to the extent that a person suffering with short-term memory damage does.

    I, myself have remembered both feelings and facts about jobs, groups and incidents much differently than I experienced them at the time. I keep a journal, and sometimes amuse myself by trying to recall how I felt about, for example, a job, and then going back and reading what I wrote about the job and my feelings about it at the time. Not at all the same.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Thanks for the story. Another example would be “repressed memory” therapy, which (inadvertently) plants false but vivid memories.

      I read one article that described memory in almost a Heisenberg sort of way–your mind accesses a memory and then rewrites it back. Sometimes that rewriting isn’t quite perfect. In other words, a computer’s read-only memory isn’t a perfect analogy to human memory.

  • Kellen Connor

    I can’t use that particular example, since during the early 2000s I was in the habit of staying up until 6 AM, so there was really only one place I could have been during the 9/11 attacks: bed. But I’ve had the same thing happen to me: a vivid memory proven to be completely wrong.

  • KarlUdy

    In response to the claim that “memory in general is a good guide to facts about the past” in a public forum discussion, David Papineau replied that memory was a “shockingly bad guide” and to back up his point continued “…I think – I mean, if I’d have known Peter was going to say this I would have brought the figures, but there’s something like 200 people being released from long-term prison sentences in the United States because of DNA evidence going back to the occasion of their crime many years ago and a significant number of those 200 were in jail because of false eye-witness testimony.”

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Yes, the example of DNA evidence showing the weakness of eyewitness testimony is a great one.

      • KarlUdy

        Can’t smell the irony?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Nope.

        • KarlUdy

          Not ironic that he says how untrustworthy memory is, but trusts his own memory?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          If you say so. It seemed like he had plenty of qualifiers.

          I take it as an intriguing invitation to check out the facts (which he seems to invite) rather than a definitive statement of fact based on memory.

        • KarlUdy

          What qualifiers?

          And he is recalling this study to oppose the idea that memory in general is a good guide to facts about the past. He doesn’t name the study, or where we can find it, he just expects his listeners to trust his memory as being in general a good guide to the facts about the past (ie that his memory of reading the study is in general accurate – maybe wrong on some details but not major points.) Isn’t this exactly what he is arguing against?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Is your original comment really worth all this discussion?

          What qualifiers?

          “if I’d have known Peter was going to say this I would have brought the figures” to make clear that what he offers is tentative; “something like 200 people” indicates uncertainty; “a significant number of those” ditto.

          In that situation, wanting to make that point, what would you’ve done? Just kept silent since you didn’t have a copy of the study in hand?

          Isn’t this exactly what he is arguing against?

          Uh, no. What he argues against is, “It is the case that X.” The way he does it is, “Let me point you to something. I’m not the authority; it is—so don’t take this as gospel. I think it says X.”

          That’s what I would’ve done. Perhaps I’m guilty of missing this flamboyant error as well.

        • KarlUdy

          In that situation, wanting to make that point, what would you’ve done? Just kept silent since you didn’t have a copy of the study in hand?

          If memory really is a “shockingly bad” guide to the facts, as he says, then doesn’t that put it on the same level as quoting an urban legend, “My cousin’s best friend’s brother heard that …”? If so, is it worth repeating? Should anyone pay any attention to it?

          And as to your qualifiers, he still seems to expect his listeners to take his memory as being “in general a good guide to the facts” ie may not have all the details exact, but the broad strokes are true.

          Uh, no. What he argues against is, “It is the case that X.” The way he does it is, “Let me point you to something. I’m not the authority; it is—so don’t take this as gospel. I think it says X.”

          Do you disagree with my take on what “in general a good guide to the facts” means? Or do you think Dr Papineau saw things differently? He did seem quite strident about what it means, after all, he said that memory was a “shockingly bad” guide to the facts of the past.

        • Kodie

          You are really reaching, Karl.

        • Greg G.

          It seems to me that his ability to recall just a bit about the study but not all the details supports his point. The irony is that the memory failure to be able to quote the specific study precisely is even better than it would have been had he recited it from memory.

        • KarlUdy

          It would support memory being “a shockingly bad” guide to the facts about the past? As opposed to a generally good guide?

          Tell me, would you give a second’s thought to financial or health advice that has been described as coming from a “shockingly bad” guide to the facts?

        • Greg G.

          Hi Karl,

          For many types of information that would have a major impact on my life, I would be very skeptical of it if it came from someone who had been exposed to the information briefly once or twice.

          On the other hand, if the information came from someone who studied it, using more than one memory method to acquire it, and then reenforcing it with hands on experience while having an expert evaluating and correcting them throughout the training, I would still want a second or third opinion.

          How do you do it?

        • KarlUdy

          Greg,
          Generally, if someone tells me they remember something, I treat it as being generally true as long as long as a) there is no conflicting evidence, and b) they haven’t demonstrated to me that I should not trust their memory or their honesty.

          But then I don’t say memory is a “shockingly bad” guide to the truth. In my mind, to categorize memory in that way would indicate that it is more wrong than right, and should fundamentally not be trusted.

          For the record, I believe that Dr Papineau’s recollection of the study is fundamentally accurate, but that he errs in attributing the problems of eyewitness testimony solely to memory failures

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          If someone says, “Hey, don’t take this as gospel, but here’s a tip you might want to look up,” that’s usually a good thing.

        • Kodie

          He remembered a figure he’d read about off the top of his head – that’s not ironic, just because he could remember it.

          The point about the 9/11 memories is that a lot of people got their memories about the narrative shown on the news, the images played over and over, and got the order wrong and had claimed to witness the first plane crash first-hand while watching tv. In modern times, with modern technology, people’s memories of an occasion are still influenced by outside information they didn’t witness, and when they remember the event, remember wrongly that they had witnessed it. They can check the information to correct themselves but don’t – but we can. It is impossible for everyone to say they saw the first plane crash into the first tower on TV. It is not impossible for some people to have seen it in person, because it is something that happened, and it was filmed, but people can also make that up – people can, to get some kind of attention they seek, pretend that they saw it as it happened, and elaborate what it was like, and they can tell this story enough that they begin to believe it. They forget that it was made up and the details can be real for them, in their memory.

          That doesn’t mean people can’t remember things! That doesn’t mean our memories are so fallible, they never work, and are always wrong.

          When the claim is that a dead person was seen walking around after he had died, are you prone to believe people who say they saw this? Why? It is an impossible thing to see, and one prone to outside influences, and a lack of being able to check. It reminds me of the old episodes of The Brady Bunch where they would stage a ghost haunting the house with projectors and clotheslines and recordings of chains and moaning. A dead person doesn’t walk around, and if anyone said that’s what they saw, they’re a fucking idiot.

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