On Wednesday, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams made a formal apology for repeating a story of his getting shot down in a helicopter in Iraq.
It didn't really happen.
"I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago," Williams said, adding, "I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft ... I don't know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another."
Regardless of how this ultimately affects Williams' career, the saga brings up some uncomfortable questions about the nature of memory. Is it even possible to misremember being shot out of the sky? To believe that it happened when it didn't?
The research says: maybe, thanks to the fact that we're terrible at remembering.
Writing for the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova reports on a group of Emory University students who were in school at the time of the Challenger shuttle explosion — and completely misremembered their experiences.
Konnikova tells the story of one of the students involved, given the name R. T.:
R. T. first heard about the Challenger explosion as she and her roommate sat watching television in their Emory University dorm room. A news flash came across the screen, shocking them both. R. T., visibly upset, raced upstairs to tell another friend the news. Then she called her parents. Two and a half years after the event, she remembered it as if it were yesterday: the TV, the terrible news, the call home. She could say with absolute certainty that that's precisely how it happened. Except, it turns out, none of what she remembered was accurate.
The day after the explosion, she showed up to her psychology class lead by Ulric Neisser, a cognitive psychologist and memory researcher. R. T. and other students filled out a detailed questionnaire: "Where were the students when they heard the news? Whom were they with? What were they doing?"
Two and a half years later, Neisser and his colleagues checked in with the students.
As Konnikova reports, the differences in recall were staggering:
In the fall of 1988, two and a half years later, the questionnaire was given a second time to the same students. It was then that R. T. recalled, with absolute confidence, her dorm-room experience. But when Neisser and Harsch compared the two sets of answers, they found barely any similarities. According to R. T.'s first recounting, she'd been in her religion class when she heard some students begin to talk about an explosion. She didn't know any details of what had happened, "except that it had exploded and the schoolteacher's students had all been watching, which I thought was sad." After class, she went to her room, where she watched the news on TV, by herself, and learned more about the tragedy.
Neisser published his findings in a 1992 paper titled "Phantom flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about Challenger."
"The most noteworthy outcome of this study is that over 40% of the informants were clearly inconsistent across the two occasions," Ulric writes. "These results bring the accuracy of flashbulb memories into question."
The students' memories of the Challenger explosion "were vivid, clear — and wrong," Konnikova says. "There was no relationship at all between confidence and accuracy."
So, at least in theory, there may be a scientific explanation for Williams' journalistic snafu: One can be totally convinced of how a traumatic episode unfolded in one's life, but be completely wrong about what actually happened.
The mis-remembering shows the brain isn't a computer — it's an organ, and a bewildering one at that.
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