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What Brian Williams case may teach about false memories

Brian Williams, then a reporter with NBC news, posed with Dental Technician 1st Class Ervin Borja aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Tarawa March 13, 2003, at sea in the Arabian Gulf.
Brian Williams, then a reporter with NBC news, posed with Dental Technician 1st Class Ervin Borja aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Tarawa March 13, 2003, at sea in the Arabian Gulf.David Senn/US Navy/Getty Images/Getty

Amid the furor over accusations that Brian Williams exaggerated what he witnessed while reporting from war torn or disaster-afflicted regions, the NBC News anchor garnered some support — not from fellow journalists but leading memory researchers.

These experts have demonstrated in studies that our memories provide, at best, semi-accurate records of what we experienced and, at worst, completely false accounts of events.

“Our research shows that memories change over time to reframe and edit events to create a story that fits a person’s current world,” said Joel Voss, an assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

It’s why when we recall birthday parties we had when we were 7, we usually picture our parents looking as they did when we last saw them, rather than how they looked decades ago.

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In a study published last year in the Journal of Neuroscience, Voss and his colleague demonstrated how people edit memories by enlisting 17 participants to look at an object on a computer screen against a specific background like, say, an ocean scene. They were then shown the same object in a different place on the screen against a different background. When they were asked to return the object to where it had been on the first background, they always picked the wrong spot.

Participants were finally shown the object on the first background and asked to move the object to its original place. They always put the object closer to the new location that they had just picked, rather than the original location — suggesting that their new memory had replaced the old one.

Elizabeth Loftus, a memory researcher at the University of California, Irvine, conducted experiments over the past two decades where she successfully implanted false childhood memories in volunteers, convincing them that they had been attacked by a wild animal, lost in a mall, or rescued from drowning by a lifeguard. “They were able to recall scenes and emotions from this memory after reading a false journal entry or after we told them that we heard about it from their parents,” Loftus said.

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Other celebrities have had famously false recollections: Three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush was asked how he first learned of the tragedy, and he said he remembered seeing TV footage that morning of the first plane hitting the twin tower. There would have been no footage of the first attack available then.

Whether Williams had a similar memory slip-up or knowingly lied may never be known, but Loftus said she would give him the benefit of the doubt. “He’s demonstrating the malleable nature of memory. It’s a wonderful teachable moment, and those who wish to see him fired should look in the mirror.”