Friday, August 8, 2008

Constructing memories

My first of the memory of the Olympics is the 1960 Games from Rome. I was in Canada, near Windsor where my cousins had a summer house on Lake St. Clair. My cousin Bill and I were 11 that summer and both of us were sports nuts. (We invented a way to play baseball with just the two of us.)

I have very clear memories of watching the Games live on TV, after midnight. Part of the excitement for us, of course, was staying up really late. Of course, Wilma Rudolph, Rafer Johnson and the rest of the American team were pretty exciting, too.

The problem with these memories - vivid, very clear memories - is that they can't possibly be true. For one thing, midnight in Windsor is 6 a.m. in Rome. There probably wasn't a lot of competition at that hour. I have also read recently that the US TV networks flew film of the events to New York, where it would be edited and broadcast. I'm sure the Canadian TV network did something similar. We surely didn't see any events live.

So these are constructed memories. (They're not lies - I really remember them, even though I know they didn't happen.) How do we construct such memories?

There is much truth to the memories. I did spend a lot of summer weeks at my cousin's summer home; we were sports nuts; we surely would have been excited about the Olympics; the 1960 Games were the first extensively televised in the US (and, I suppose, in Canada.) Somehow, after 48 years, the memories of the 1960 Games have become more exciting, more extreme.

Elizabeth Loftus has done a great deal of research on false memories. One of her areas of specialization has been the problem of eyewitnesses at criminal trials who remember things differently from the way they really occurred. It turns out that eyewitness testimony is trials is often wrong, though many of us think it's the best kind of evidence. Here's a link to an article she wrote about some research in which she purposely planted false memories in people's minds.

It makes little difference in the world if I remember the summer of 1960 as more exciting than it really was. It makes a big difference if a defendent is sent to prison for a crime someone else committed.


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