Thoughts That Hurt to Think #097 – Our Memories Are Unreliable!

At some point, I remember hearing that all you need to convict someone of a crime is a pair of eyewitnesses. I was pretty young when I heard it, since it’s one of those vague public school memories that never really served me in any way; but even then I thought it was a little silly. What I heard, once the statement made it through my already somewhat jaded filters, was that all you need is two people willing to lie to put someone in jail.

Yet this issue goes way beyond blatant lying.

The problem is, memory is highly unreliable. Most of the things we remember from years ago have probably changed in that time, and the really old ones are even less reliable. Very few people visit a childhood home and remember it being just the way it looks now. Even when we account for paint jobs and renovations, it doesn’t explain how much has changed since we grew up there. Those changes didn’t happen in the real world, though; they happened in our minds.

And that’s just the memories we form in normal situations.

When the human mind is under undue stress, it can play all kinds of tricks on the rememberer. We might recall a distant childhood memory with little or no true recollection of the actual event, but there really isn’t much harm in that. Until every moment of everyone’s lives are being recorded somehow, this is something we all just have to live with. However, those memories are far more likely to be accurate than the ones we form when something drastic goes down.

The calm eyewitness that enters the courtroom to testify may as well be a completely different person than the one who actually saw the crime happen, especially if they witnessed a singularly violent event. Some people may realize they’re caught in the middle of some shady business, and be able to both document and remember a lot of details with a fair amount of accuracy; and perhaps that should be considered. We can argue that maybe certain cases should be able to rely more on eyewitness testimony, but that really just brings us back to the point that most people are willing to lie for nothing. When you offer a paycheck for those falsehoods, the number probably goes up at least a bit.

Pretty much everyone in the legal system is aware of this; yet instead of throwing out eyewitness testimonies as highly unreliable, attorneys routinely coach their witnesses to make sure they give the same story every time. The last thing anyone wants from someone on the stand is a surprise, so they go over the account in detail like an actor memorizing their lines. Maybe the story gets more true, as the coaching ensues; but most likely it gets more aligned with what the lawyer doing the coaching wants to hear, and further from the actual truth.

DNA testing has done a lot to straighten this sort of thing out, but you might be surprised how often that testing happens after the accused has already spent some time behind bars. And though we all have high definition cameras on those things we call phones, an awful lot of security footage still doesn’t quite do the job. The real clincher in any criminal case is an eyewitness, which is like saying the most essential feature of an automobile is an anchor.

If you have two people willing to say they saw the same thing, for whatever reason, you really do have a pretty solid case. This is almost reason enough to be nice to folks, in and of itself; after all, it only takes two people willing to say they saw you commit a crime to put you in a cage. We might wonder what motivation those people would have to lie, if we weren’t so familiar with how often humans indulge in that pastime. People lie to get jobs, to make and keep friends, and to get a date; and sometimes, folks lie for no reason at all. If we think revenge isn’t motivation enough to drive a lot of folks to deceive, we’ve probably got another think coming.

The real freaky thing in all this is that some liars come to believe the things they are lying about. Lie detector tests are seldom administered, most likely because they’re considered highly unreliable. Nearly everyone can calmly state their real name, and then just as cooly say their name is something else entirely; but when you start asking questions about a murder, anyone in their right mind is going to get a little jumpy. Guilt or innocence aside, anyone having their freedom threatened by their ability to perform convincingly on the stand is unlikely to be breathing easy.

Very few of us would consider spending time in a courtroom to be a normal activity, completely devoid of stress. Even serving on a jury means you have to behave a certain way, or face time in jail should you be found in contempt. Some of us already have contempt for this country’s legal system, and would be terrified to count on it to deliver justice should we find ourselves accused of a crime. Especially those of us who know how easy it is to get a witness to believe something that isn’t true, or how many people have gone to jail for crimes they didn’t commit, or how much testimony is bought and paid for.

When two people are involved in an event, no matter how inconsequential, two completely different recollections of that event get carried away from it. Any crowd full of people will have a crowd of memories going home with them, each as unique as the person who formed it. This goes way beyond the fact that one person can have a great time doing something while another is miserable performing the same activity, or considering that no two people can have the same physical perspective on any situation without looking out through the same set of eyes. Even if those variables were eliminated somehow, each mind that shared the exact same experience would still form completely different memories around it.

Knowing this, the conscientious person can feel a little stuck as to how to proceed. We may be aware that the thing we rely on the most for consistency is fundamentally flawed, but we really don’t have another option. Memory upgrades are not available for people yet, and it doesn’t matter how much storage we have on our devices when it comes to personal recollection. The further we get from an event in time, the more likely we are to misremember it. The way we misremember it may say something about us, and that message may be an important one; but we can’t receive that message unless we have access to an objective reality to compare our memory to.

We might ask those that share the memory to substantiate our own account, but all we’re going to get is their version of the event. Objective reality most likely does exist, and some truly great philosophies have been built around that premise; but that doesn’t change the reality of this situation. As soon as we interface with objective reality, it becomes subjective; which is to say it may exist, but no one can really see it.

This is different than saying electricity exists, even if we can’t see it. We can measure that energy, just as we can perceive tiny particles we can’t see with the naked eye when we use special equipment. Objective reality may be the thing scientists are measuring, in many cases; but they’re still the ones doing the measuring. Their subjectivity comes into play inevitably at some point, and their memory starts to be part of the equation as soon as the study commences. When it’s over, they may have documentation to back up their recall; but they’ll be viewing it with a perspective tainted by emotion and through memories that have degraded over time.

We can’t eschew scientific inquiry, of course; any more than we can do away with the justice system. What we can do is keep in mind that whatever we remember is highly suspect, as is whatever anyone else remembers. Of course, keeping this in mind means remembering it; and we all know our memories are highly unreliable. Rather than insist our recall is perfect, we might all do well to admit we’re possibly wrong about almost everything we think we’re right about.

Thanks for reading!

All the best,

J.K. Norry
The Secret Society of Deeper Meaning
Twitter: @JayNorry

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