December 01, 2016

Embroidered memory. Credit: Hey Paul Studios / Flickr Creative Commons

Remember something. Anything. Could be your first date, the last time you went on a roller coaster, even what you had for breakfast this morning. Picture it in your mind’s eye, recall all the details of the experience. Now, how sure are you that everything you remember is accurate? According to Dr. Julia Shaw, a forensic psychologist and author of The Memory Illusion, you shouldn’t be all that certain. We talked with her about how memory actually works, and what that means for our legal system, our relationships, and our lives.

Three Takeaways:

  • Shaw points out that memory is far more malleable than we might assume. Pretty much no one has a perfect memory. Shaw says, “all of our memories change every time we recall a story.” Our memories aren’t like cassette tapes or DVDs, recording everything with near perfect clarity. They’re more like stories that we continue to tell ourselves.
  • Shaw says we tend to inflate the positive elements of our past and overlook the negative elements. So if you’re trying to return to a blissful, problem-free yesterday, well, that past was probably not nearly as fun and worry-free as you remember.
  • If you’re wondering whether our inconsistent, imperfect memories present problems for our legal system… yes, they definitely do. Eyewitness accounts aren’t always reliable, but, as Shaw notes, they’re incredibly powerful in a courtroom. Shaw recommends training police and lawyers on the science of memory, and making sure they understand that memory isn’t perfect.

More Reading:

NPR, Julia Shaw, pri, Kara Miller, WGBH

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