On Memory: Or Why Brian Williams Can’t Perceive the World As It Is

Written by Jason Dias

Brian Williams, now suspended from NBC, didn’t tell the truth. Here’s an exploration on how memory works and what the Brian Williams error really was. Commentary.

aNewDomain — By now, you know that NBC has suspended anchor Brian Williams for lying about being hit in Iraq while he was embedded with troops.

Memory is, in many ways, what we are.

Emory Cowen suggests that the reason we really fear death is that we fear the loss of our memory.  That is, it isn’t that we will die that terrifies us, it is that we will die and forget that we have lived.  Forget who we were.

Sometimes our memories are not quite accurate.  No, that is a tragic understatement: Our memories are never accurate.  Who we are is predicated on faulty perceptions and malleable memory that we have convinced ourselves reflects something true about the world.

The thing is, we can’t perceive the world the way it is.  We can only perceive it as we are evolved to: with a narrow wavelength of light, a narrow band of sound, the immediacy of touch, all filtered through biases and preconceptions.  Beau Lotto makes the point convincingly in this TED talk.

Video: TED YouTube channel

So, the things we remember didn’t happen exactly as we recall them, because our attention was narrowly focused and our point of view and our filters keep out actual reality. 

And things get selectively into our memories.  I might tell a student ten good things about their paper and one thing to correct, and they focus so hard on the correction that they miss all the positive feedback.  I get a note back that demonstrates they never heard it, only defensiveness about some small mistake.

Even when things get into memory, those memories are fragile.  We aren’t computers.  A computer stores things onto a hard drive, and as you work on those things it copies them into random access memory.  You work on the copy, not the hard-drive version.  You have to hit “save” to make the permanent version.

But we are made of neural networks, neurons firing in a pattern that represents a thought or a feeling or a command to move, an experience of the external world.  When we’re thinking about a memory, that memory is online.  The neurons that represent the experience are firing, not in a virtual copy in random access memory, but live.

So here’s the problem.

Flashbulb memories are, according to the intro-psych textbook I teach out of, the most accurate and reliable memories.  These are memories built under stress.  Say, in a chopper under fire, taking evasive action as the lead vehicle is taking hits.  Landing as the rest of the convoy lands.

A particular generation recalls the Kennedy shooting with intensity.  Some of us recall the Challenger explosion this way, and the attacks on the Twin Towers, New York City, most all of us.  I remember with a particular vividness standing outside our office building in Washington, crying, talking it over. Smoking. I didn’t smoke but all my colleagues who did were out there looking for comfort in that small combustion.

Now, I also remember watching the moon landing, the first steps on a world not Earth taken by humans.  I was very small.  The home was my grandparents’ place in Huntington.  I remember the comments, the sort of stuff you’d expect working-class English folk to say about such a wonder.

But the moon landing occurred five years before I was born.

I am probably recalling the tenth anniversary of this event, and conflating it with the film Apollo Thirteen.

Flashbulb memories formed in trauma contain a great deal of detail, because adrenaline is coursing, attention is focused, and everything is getting in.  The gun-barrel-effect can limit attention to one object or sound, the dangerous, salient aspect of the environment, but otherwise we are like human recorders.

The trouble is, these shared traumas tend to be the things we talk about with one another.  The folks who were kids when Mr. Kennedy died, they talk about it with other folks around their age, who also remember the event.  The memory gets dyed the colors of the conversations, conflated, altered.

This story about the helicopter convoy, well, Mr. Williams would talk about those events a lot.  With others who survived them, with interviewers, with veterans, with his Mom, with everyone.  And every time he tells the story or hears a different account of those events, they get conflated in memory.  The memory itself changes over time.  It’s not that he’s lying, most likely, but actually remembering events differently than they actually happened, because we are not tape recorders.  And, indeed, the events never happened as any individual involved recorded them to begin with.

This is bigger, much bigger, than whether one individual journalist might have lied in an interview.  It is about the nature of truth itself.

Lies get told all the time and we do not recognize them as lies.  APA writing style insists we eliminate first-person pronouns and narratives.  Does this mean the works you read in psychology journals are therefore objective, or merely objectivist?  Human objectivity is impossible and this pernicious misrepresentation has lead us down any number of garden paths from overdiagnosis to overpresciption.

Defendants show up in court dressed in nice suits.  They bought them for the appearance.  Is this truth?

When it comes to cable news, the agencies taking Mr. Williams most to task right now, almost nothing presented is true.  Pretty blond news anchors with college degrees pretend to be stupid.  Opinions are swayed by contemptuous sneering – at the idea that racism is pervasive and that climate change is real and caused by human activity, or the idea that people who are economically marginalized might benefit from public assistance, or the idea that trickle-down or supply-side economics has no empirical support.  Anchors act like these ideas are stupid, refer to common sense or the 100-level economics courses they took 20 years ago, and change the nature of truth.

These are lies.

Popular Science closed its comments sections because uncivil dialogue weakens belief in good, valid science.  A sneering comment, a flame, makes the carefully researched facts of the matter less believable – not only that but less believed.

Cable news – you know who you are – knows this principle and exploits it every day.  An invitation to appear on Bill O’Reilly’s show is little more than a chance for him to yell at you, degrade your ideas with insults and sometimes even threats.  His arguments don’t pass muster with the Book of Bad Arguments. But they win followers and degrade the truth.

Check out the clip, below.

Video: Brave New Films YouTube channel

The other two thirds of news’ big three are better – but not by much.  Ideological slant is all over the editorial decisions – what stories to cover, for how long, with how much time given to various sides of each argument.  Another form of the lie is giving too much time to refutation of basic facts. 

In this segment on climate change, included below, John Oliver brilliantly explains (warning, contains profanity) how giving equal time to contrary arguments – or sometimes any time at all — is a lie.

Video: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

In short, attacking Brian Williams over this one misremembered narrative is grandstanding.  It has much to do with the big three networks trying to degrade the credibility of a competitor while themselves trying to hold onto the mantles of fair, balanced reporting.

Let me ask you this: How far do you trust a shady-looking guy who keeps inserting “trust me,” into every conversation?  If the news keeps doing it, why do you believe them? Trust me. I’m right about this.

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.

Cover image:

Afterimage” by Me (Stevo-88) – Own work – my representation of a well known optical illusion. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.