The fallibility of memory

The fallibility of memory
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It was clear to most viewers of the Senate Judiciary Committee Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Kavanaugh that both the alleged assailant and the alleged victim Professor Christine Blasey Ford appeared to feel, with every fiber of their beings, that they were telling the truth. But how is that possible? Didn’t one or even both of them have to be lying?

The answer to this crucial question lies in part in the inaccuracy of memory over time. 


What is memory? It is the process of encoding, storing, keeping and finally retrieving information and experiences. A key structure in the brain involved in storing memories is the hippocampus (the brain’s file cabinet)

But we must keep in mind that memory isn’t stored the way computer files are and it also doesn’t always stay the same over time. Each time we remember something we are reconstructing a past event and this reconstruction isn’t entirely reliable. We may suppress a negative memory that is damaging to our self-esteem, or we may do the opposite, living in nightmarish memories that we embellish. 

Studies have shown that memory is dynamic and labile and changeable over time, that this lability affects behavior, that older memories can be extinguished by excess retrievals and that memory adapts and changes to fit the expectations of a person’s latest experience.

Another factor that warps memory is alcohol, with detectable impairments occurring after only a few drinks, whereas a large amount of alcohol especially when consumed quickly can lead to so-called blackouts — where a person forgets key details of what happened or even entire events. 

Alcohol is a toxin that depresses brain centers and specifically has been shown to impair the transfer of short term to longer term memory. As the dose of alcohol increases, the long term memory impairment because more significant.

Fear and strong emotion would appear to have the opposite effect to alcohol, where a primitive mechanism known as fight or flight occurs in response to perceived danger. The amygdala, an almond shaped organ deep in the brain triggers a release of norepinephrine and epinephrine and engages what is known as the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. 

Emotional memories that are stored in the process are much more difficult to extinguish than other memories, with central details of the experience remembered best.

But as I wrote in my book, “False Alarm; the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear,” fear warps perception and heightens risk and fear memories may be altered and embellished each time they are retrieved and applied to new circumstances. This is one of the reasons why a patient may suffer for years from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and phobias.

Strong emotions affect how we remember. Fear or traumatic memories are more ingrained in our brains. But they are not always completely accurate, even if we are positive that they are.

So memories are affected by alcohol and the passage of time, or riveted, entrenched and also altered by fear. We are governed by our memories, but this is part of what makes us fallible as human beings. The fallibility of memory is also what can make it appear as though two people with opposing points of view are both telling the truth.

Marc Siegel M.D. is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent.