The Puzzle of Memory: Reflections on the Divergence of Truth and Accuracy

By Wallace, Steven | Judicature, September/October 2009 | Go to article overview

The Puzzle of Memory: Reflections on the Divergence of Truth and Accuracy


Wallace, Steven, Judicature


Memory is not an exact faculty, a tape recorder replaying an imprinted vision of exactly what happened.

An experienced judge can tell when it's coming. A lawyer has progressed in his or her cross-examination of a witness to the point where an inconsistency has finally reared its ugly head. The lawyer casts an "All hah" look at the jury, affects a King o' the Hill posture, and pops the inevitable question:

"Well, were -you lying then or are you lying now?"

It may be thai both versions are wrong and neither one is a lie.

The explanation is that memory is not an exact faculty, a tape recorder replaying an imprinted vision of exactly what happened at the time in question. The idea that one may possess a "truthful" memory that is a passive or literal reproduction of reality has been debunked. If memory is a deep retention pond into which we dive when seeking to recall our past, there are surely other elements in the water that prevent us from seeing what's there with clarity.

Our memories are impacted by a wealth of factors and predispositions that we carry into our experiences like psychosomatic backpacks. Aside from the more obvious effect of such things as native intelligence, visual and aural acuity, descriptive vocabulary, emotional stability, and psychological well-being, there are other, more subtle influences playing a role: The environment in which the memory is sought to be retrieved, the relative functionality of different systems within the brain, our past history, our imagination, and our age, to name a few.

The reason that people remember events differently is because memory is not a mere "mechanical device" but, rather, the "function of a living personality with his or her own needs, fears, and interests, and these powerfully influence what that person remembers."1 All of these spontaneous contributors enhance or retard memory according to our individual makeup so that, to coin a phrase, should a mime chase a nude through a criminal law class, everyone will report it differently on the inevitable quiz that follows.

It's as if our memory is a growth, like a wen on a neck, and its ability at recall is dependent upon its state of development at the time of the experience being remembered. Memory, said Henri Bergson, is "the prolongation of the past into the present, or, in a word, duration, acting and irreversible."- And what is duration? "Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances."'1 Run something pasi. me at age 21 and ?1 remember it as best I can; run the same scenario past me 10 years later and, though still doing my best to recall it accurately, I'll remember it in a different way, influenced by the decade of additional experience being brought to bear upon the act of recollection.

Memory has been compared to a ghost; it is "an effect, more or less permanent, that remains after a presence to the senses has gone."' It's no wonder that it can be ephemeral and capricious, not necessarily as a result of conscious or purposeful vacillation on the part of the individual doing the recalling. Catching hold of a fleeting image can be tough work, even when one's trying one's best to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

We may face many honest witnesses, trying to be truthful, but only being partially accurate. Here is where there exists a challenging divergence between truth and accuracy. It is a difficult task to remember something one may have witnessed weeks or months or even years ago, especially under the pressure of questions in a courtroom.

As precarious as the act of memory may be, at least we have memories! Without them, we would lose contact with our past. Memories give us a sense of significance and belonging. Imagine what it would be like to have no memory whatsoever. A person without memory would be a corpse, like a resident in the population of Dante's Inferni) where the sinners abide in a perpetual present.

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