Tuesday, March 18, 2014

'False memories: The hidden side of our good memory' - An Overview

Basque Research relates its findings in a Science Daily article dated February 5, 2014, titled False memories: The hidden side of our good memory. The article explores the part of our memory that the justice system often overlooks when relying on eyewitnesses. While eyewitness testimony can prove crucial it is imperative to highlight that memory is subjective and as a result can be an unreliable source.
 
The research underscores that 'memory is a cognitive process, which is intrinsically linked to language’ and that 'the brain compares the words it hears with those that it recalls from previous events, in order to recognize them and to unravel their meaning.’ It finds however that this semantic process is not without fault as a lack of precision in recollection on occasion 'gives rise to the creation of false memories.'
 
Basque outlines that ‘one of the reasons for this phenomenon is that children do not have this semantic process as automated and developed as adults.’ While I agree with this, I think it would be remiss to not also point out another possible reason that this phenomenon is less likely to occur among children. Most children of a certain age do not have as many memories that they need to modified or discarded.
 
For example, lately I have been attempting without much success to put the fragmented pieces of my memory in some order. To file them away as it were. These memories span from early childhood to adolescence and through to adulthood. Some of my memories I know to be true, some I am certain are false, and there are others that are stuck in a gray area. The problem is always deciphering what memories were deliberately modified to become more digestible and which ones were not. When humans have to deal with painful memories, learning to file them away or ‘fixing’ them becomes a coping mechanism.
 
Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia in 2011 for the murder of an off-duty police officer after the case against him was ‘built entirely on eyewitnesses, who said they saw Davis gun down off-duty cop Mark McPhail.’ Seven of the nine eyewitnesses later changed their minds and recanted their testimony. The execution prompted Nathan Thornburgh in a September 2011 issue of Time Magazine, Witness Testimony and the Death Penalty: After Troy Davis, a Push for Eyewitness Reform, to point out that ‘eyewitnesses are extremely unreliable, and second, that because of that unreliability, the death penalty shouldn't hinge solely on eyewitness recall.’ Thornburgh also mentions how 'UC Irvine psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has done considerable research into the inherent unreliability of memory, how easily suggestible and completely self-deceptive it can be' and 'Santa Clara County Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu -Towery points to a number of potential variables that might affect a witness' ability to recall accurately: how far away they were from the scene, what the light was like, whether they were afraid, whether they are of a different race than the person they witnessed.'
 
In a court of law, I think it is a grave mistake to rely solely or mostly on eyewitness testimony, especially in capital cases. In fact, eyewitness testimony should only be supplementary to concrete evidence. The neuroplasticity of the human brain is one reality of our evolution. Subtle or even unsubtle changes in behavior, environment, the neural processes, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury can affect memories, making them vulnerable and therefore malleable.

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