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  • Writer's pictureLevan Bokeria

Don’t Forget to Remember

Updated: May 9, 2021

How our memories are nothing like video recordings of reality.

In 1990, George Franklin was convicted of rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl. The crime had happened 20 years before, but Franklin’s daughter, Eileen, had recently undergone psychotherapy and claimed to have recovered decades old “repressed” memories of her father committing the crime. Details from her testimony matched the crime scene features, and her emotionality and confidence convinced the jury to convict Franklin for life in prison without parole. No other corroborating evidence was presented. Consider what verdict you would have returned if you had been on the jury.

During the 80s and 90s, the U.S. saw thousands of allegations centered around “Satanic Ritual Abuse” (SRA), accusing parents and daycare workers of child sexual abuse involving satanic rituals. Many of these cases were based on claims by the victims who would go into psychotherapy to treat anxiety or eating disorders and would end up recovering years old “repressed” memories of rape and abuse which therapists suggested to be the true underlying causes of their issues. We now know that the SRA was a baseless moral panic, as law enforcement agencies found no support for widespread abuse and subsequent DNA evidence exonerated many of the defendants. Claims of “repressed” experiences being recalled through techniques like hypnosis and guided imagination were based on theorizing without any basis in science. But how could vivid and confident memories such as Eileen’s be fabricated out of whole cloth? Decades of research in cognitive psychology has steadily uncovered this mystery.

Contrary to a widespread belief, memories are nothing like video recordings of reality.

Instead, studies have found that our experiences are actively filtered through pre-existing biases, and we frequently fill in our memory gaps with what we think might have happened. For example, mock jurors listening to an audio recording of a robbery trial might incorrectly recall that “a gun was pulled out”, simply because it fits a general description of a robbery. A witness listening to a testimony of another witness might inadvertently incorporate some of the details into her own memory. Memories can also be intentionally manipulated through questioning tactics.

For example, after watching a car crash video, observers will give 20% higher estimates of the travelling speeds if they are asked “how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other” as opposed to “how fast were the cars going when they hit each other.” Even complex memories can be fabricated. Study participants can be convinced to have rich memories of childhood events that never happened, such as: being lost in a mall as a child, being attacked by a vicious animal, or even committing a crime so serious that the police got involved.

Illustration designed by Molly Rowlands.

Some of these findings can be potentially explained by the underlying brain mechanisms. Memories are encoded in new “synapses” – connections between nerve cells which stabilize over time. But a given synapse will participate in multiple memories, leading to potential for cross-contamination. Additionally, every time a memory is recalled the underlying connections are put back into a vulnerable state open to interference. Ironically, the best way to keep your childhood memories pure might be to avoid retelling them often! Researchers have also found that remarkably similar brain activations underlie recalling of true and false memories, explaining why they can be so hard to differentiate.

Contrary to a widespread belief, memories are nothing like video recordings of reality.

The lack of education of jurors and judges about such findings has resulted in many wrongful convictions, perhaps best exposed by a US non-profit litigation organization – the Innocence Project. In their initial 250 cases where DNA evidence exonerated defendants from life sentence or death row, eyewitness testimonies played a part in 75% of them.

George Franklin spent five years in prison until, in 1995, a district court overturned the case, partly because the defense was originally not allowed to argue that the crime scene details in Eileen’s recollections were taken from newspaper articles and were not a genuine memory. Those details must have infiltrated her memory through psychotherapy. Eventually, the lack of corroborating evidence in many other similar cases, the increased scientific understanding of unreliability of memory, and successful malpractice lawsuits against several therapists took the winds out of the sails of SRA allegations. In Franklin’s and many other cases, DNA evidence eventually identified true perpetrators. But at the peak of the SRA panic, the emotionally charged atmosphere and negative media portrayals of the defendants made critical investigations difficult while any skeptics became co-accused. Consider if such a description could apply to any current or future social trends. Memories are fundamental to our sense of identity, and they can be a defining factor for an individual’s character and a uniting thread for groups, nations or even the whole world. But in basing our judgments, decisions and our future on recollections of our past, we must retain a healthy and informed skepticism towards their accuracy.


Originally from Georgia, Levan Bokeria [2018, Hughes Hall] got his Bachelor’s in the US and Masters in the Netherlands. He is studying human learning and memory for his PhD.


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