Evolution and Memory

Remember the Telephone Game? Participants sit in a circle or line. The first person in the line receives a whispered message from the game host. The first person then whispers that message to the next participant, who whispers the message to the next person, etc., to the last person, who then speaks the message out loud. Invariably, the final message is totally different from the initial one. Our own memory system operates like that.

We trust our memories as solid and correct, and yet, the more we recall those memories, the more likely they are to be distorted to the point of being totally false when recalled later. The reason for the memory distortion is the fact that human memories are always adapting. It’s evolution in action.

“Memories aren’t static. If you remember something in the context of a new environment and time, or if you are even in a different mood, your memories might integrate the new information.” (Bridge)

Even under hypnosis, there is a bias toward recalling the last recalling rather than recalling the initial event. Hypnosis based on “returning to cause” can go awry if cognitive story telling is involved (“tell me what happened…”).

Therapies that rely upon multiple retelling of a story (sometimes called repetition or duplication) may be effective because of this bias – especially when done in a safe and nurturing environment. Each retelling would tend to include more and more elements of the current safe environment until at some time, the story loses its emotional burden, replaced by emotional elements of the current safe and nurturing environment (e.g., the therapy room).

“…memories normally change over time, sometimes becoming distorted. When you think back to an event that happened to you long ago – say your first day at school – you actually may be recalling information you retrieved about that event at some later time, not the original event.”

In forensics this bias is troubling because the more a witness tells his/her story, the more they have to deal with distorted memories of the event. This becomes more evident during intense or extensive questioning in which the story is recalled many, many times – sometimes causing investigators to question the witness’ innocence (“His story changed significantly from the first telling… maybe he’s involved in this thing…” etc.).

My take away:
Don’t trust your memory! It can get you into deep trouble! For forensic investigators and associates (i.e., forensic hypnotists), the fewer times a witness has to recall an event, the more accurate their recall is likely to be.

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