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The Myth Of Unimpeachable Memory

The Left tries to claim — in times of moral hysteria — that certain memories are forged in our minds, as if our brains really are computers for certain bits of data.

The prevailing line now is that victims of trauma have perfect memories of the details they actually remember, even though common sense tells us — and decades of studies — show that our memory is not, in fact, a reliable source of information.

But here is The New York Times, making an effort to suggest that a Supreme Court nominee probably sexually assaulted a woman when he was 17 years old, with an article claiming that “Sexual Assault Memories Stick.”

The subtitle of the article reads: “Christine Blasey Ford says she has a vivid memory of an attack that took place when she was 15. That makes sense.”

Ford is the woman who has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a pool party in the early 1980s. This subtitle leaves out the fact that Ford’s “vivid memory” lacks even basic details, like when and where the attack actually happened. The author, Dr. Richard A. Friedman, asserts that he is a psychiatrist and therefore knows “something about how memory works.”

“Neuroscience research tells us that memories formed under the influence of intense emotion — such as the feelings that accompany a sexual assault — are indelible in the way that memories of a routine day are not,” he begins his op-ed.

He later suggests that while we may forget where we put our phones, “you will almost never forget who raped you, whether it happened yesterday —or 36 years ago.”

Except, memories can be corrupted and manipulated – even ones supposedly born from trauma. In fact, the Times — just three years ago — wrote about the “Power of False Memory.”

The article was about eyewitness accounts and how inaccurate they actually are. The example given by the times was the shooting of David Baril in 2015. Multiple witnesses saw the event, and gave different accounts of what they saw. Anthony O’Grady told the Times it looked like Baril “was trying to get away from the officers.” Sunny Khalsa said she “saw a man who was handcuffed being shot.”

Both of these people witnessed a traumatic event. This, by today’s standards, means it should be a vivid and accurate representation of what happened. But police released surveillance video showing both of these witnesses were absolutely wrong. Baril was not “trying to get away” from cops when he was shot, nor was he already handcuffed. In reality, he was chasing an officer while threatening her with a hammer. Another officer shot Baril as he did this. He was handcuffed after he had been shot.

As the Times points out, neither O’Grady nor Khalsa were considered to have malicious intent behind their statements. Rather, the Times mentions how “studies of memories of traumatic events consistently show how common it is for errors to creep into confidently recalled accounts, according to cognitive psychologists.”

The Times quotes associate psychology professor Deryn Strange of John Jay College of Criminal Justice saying, “It’s frightening how easy it is to build in a false memory.” He also told the Times that “it is surprising to the average person how quickly memories can be distorted.”

Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California-Irvine is considered a “leading researcher in the field of witness memory,” according to the Times, and says that people fill in the gaps of their memories.

“If someone has gaps in their narrative, they can fill it in with lots of things,” she said. “Often they fill it with their own expectations, and certainly what they may hear from others.”

In another Times article — this one from 2011 — Adam Liptak, a lawyer and Supreme Court correspondent, wrote that a third of the 75,000 eyewitness identifications of suspects are wrong. Even worse, many of these lead to wrongful convictions.

“Mistaken identifications lead to wrongful convictions,” Liptak wrote. “Of the first 250 DNA exonerations, 190 involved eyewitnesses who were wrong, as documented in ‘Convicting the Innocent,’ a recent book by Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia.”

Scott Greenfield, an attorney and blogger, writes that this new claim that certain memories are etched in our brain undoes decades of research and centuries of legal precedent.

“This is part of an ongoing scheme to recreate history to achieve outcomes people desperately desire to obtain, at the expense of processes that are factually accurate and substantively critical to achieving correct outcomes,” Greenfield wrote at his blog, Simple Justice.

We’ve seen instances of how this idea that memories are accurate has played out before — in the Satanic Day Care panic of the 1980s and early 90s. There, too, we were told by “experts” that the children had suffered a trauma and their memories were valid, even though many of their accusations included impossible claims such as being flown to outer space and witnessing child sacrifices (despite no children going missing).

This is not to say Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser, is lying or mistaken, but to say that pseudo-science at odds with decades of research and factual evidence is not evidence that she must be telling the truth and remember perfectly whatever happened 36 years ago, if anything happened at all.

 
 
 

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