Magazine article The Spectator

The Mysteries of Memory

Magazine article The Spectator

The Mysteries of Memory

Article excerpt

Before you laugh at Paul Nuttall, consider your own mental myth-making

Poor Paul Nuttall. He seemed to have everything a cheeky by-election victor needed: the outsider vim, the accent, the cap. Then it emerged he had made stuff up about Hillsborough. That was that. He moved from admirable Scouser to tragedy-crasher.

In interviews over the years, Nuttall has referred to being at the stadium in Sheffield on the terrible day, and he still insists he was. We shall probably never know why that developed on his website into his having lost 'close personal friends' there -- something which is not, it seems, true.

Yet while it is good fun blowing raspberries and deriding politicians, we should allow them a little understanding too. After all, who is not susceptible to a soupçon of Falstaffian exaggeration in their stories? There is a line between lying and honest mistakes, but exaggeration is not always a conscious error. It may start from a wish to impress. But if not challenged, then in time the exaggeration feels more comfortable than the earlier version, and consciously at first, unconsciously at some point after, it replaces the real memory.

I became interested in this business some years ago when writing a book on Northern Ireland. I began to tally every person who claimed to have done the same strange and almost grotesque act of kindness -- which in reality not more than one person could ever have done -- during one of the most notorious episodes of the Troubles. I concluded that they probably all believed their stories and would continue to do so even if someone pointed out that they couldn't have been where they said they were. Years of telling the story had changed their recollection. Crucially, they adapted it in a way that was plausible to others and plausible to their own other memories.

Somebody who had themselves been to prison thanks to another person's false memory read my book and recommended that I look at Daniel Schacter's The Seven Sins of Memory (2001). It's an extraordinary insight into how our minds work. Schacter, a Harvard psychologist, goes through a set of vulnerabilities to which we are prone. We might think of our memory as a huge filing cabinet, but in fact it's a great heap of memories which move even as we try to contemplate them. There is for instance the problem of 'suggestibility', whereby someone else places a memory with us that overrides and becomes our memory. …

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