Memory is a complicated thing. Sometimes it’s as sharp as a pair of sewing scissors, every detail of an event vivid and colorful in the mind’s eye. Other times, the memory fades within seconds, taking on a dreamlike quality that makes it impossible to nail down the specifics of something that occurred only a short time ago.
Memory is also clouded by emotion, highlighting the details that correspond most directly to how the person is feeling that day. I might have a memory that is full of joy about a summer picnic. The sun is shining brightly. I am playing tag on the lawn with a group of kids, giggling all the while. Eventually, we sit down to enjoy hot dogs and cupcakes while the sun warms our skin.
Another memory might contain a similar picnic but from a completely different angle. Instead of happy events, I might remember the pain of being stung by a bee, how my sister kept picking on me that day, and how it was far too hot.
It’s this ability for emotions to distort memory or focus on only specific factors that makes it so difficult for the police to get accurate witness statements. If people have witnessed a violent crime, the fear, anger, and uncertainty that they experienced at that moment is sure to taint their ability to recall the event later. People might remember the robber as having a more sinister face than he really possessed. The type of crime might seem too mature for a teenager, so a witness will add a few years to the robber’s face in their memory and describe him as older. Perhaps a woman had her purse snatched a few years ago, and the new robbery has caused those memories and emotions to resurface. She may meld the two crimes in her mind and get the details mixed up.
This leads me to the problem of false memories, which are memories of events that never actually happened. When I want to remember something, I have a habit of picturing myself doing whatever particular task I’m trying to remember. If I’m really worried about forgetting something, I’ll picture myself doing that task several times. This technique, while generally helpful, occasionally causes problems.
A few months ago on a Friday afternoon, I couldn’t find my phone. I was convinced it had dropped out of my purse while I was eating lunch in a café that I frequent. I had a very distinct memory of putting my phone in the side pocket of my purse. I recalled that during lunch, I’d heard a thud as something hit the ground. Clearly, that had been my phone falling out. The place is closed on weekends, but I still drove by the next day to see if a cleaning crew might be working or maybe I could peek through the windows and spot my phone on the floor. When Monday morning rolled around, I dropped by early to ask around and see if any of the staff had seen it. No such luck. Clearly someone must have found the phone shortly after I’d dropped it and pocketed it, right?
Nope, I’d only imagined bringing the phone to the café. Instead, my phone had been sitting in my son’s backpack since Thursday afternoon. I’d placed it there during his swim lesson. As soon as I came across it, I remembered that’s where I’d put it, but up until that moment, I would have bet money that I’d taken the phone to lunch that Friday.
I think this is how the police end up with false statements from witnesses who sincerely want to help. In their mind, they’re sure something happened the exact way they remember it. In actuality, they’ve either twisted the events to fit their own interpretation, or else they’ve created new memories based on their desire to provide the police with details that are sure to solve the crime. The police must determine what is true and what is a figment of their imagination.
As vivid as a memory may be, you can never be positive that it is one hundred percent correct. Instead, you can only remember things to the best of your ability and hope that at least most of the details are right. And make sure you always know where your phone is.