[quote=“Sharon Begley”][color=orange]SCIENCE JOURNAL[/color]
By SHARON BEGLEY
FROM THE ARCHIVES: September 13, 2002
Are All Your Memories
Of Sept. 11 Really True?
On the morning before this week’s heartbreaking anniversary, I waded into the crowds at Ground Zero to ask about their memories of Sept. 11.
Harold, a retiree from Lancaster, Calif., told me that he was awake early that day last year, watching “Today in L.A.” in bed “just as it happened.” He said he spent hours watching television that morning, riveted by images of the two planes striking the towers.
Bette (I’ll keep last names private), of Richmond, Va., had just gotten home from her overnight shift, she told me, when she turned on “Today” with her husband. She said they watched all morning as the networks reran video of the Boeings hitting the trade center.
These recollections are typical, but not in the way you may think. I can’t speak to where these visitors to Ground Zero were Sept. 11 and how they first heard, but their memory of what they saw is false.
“There was no video that day of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center,” notes psychologist Kathy Pezdek of Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., one of many researchers studying Sept. 11 memories . “Yet 76% of the New Yorkers we surveyed say they saw it then, as do 73% of people nationwide.”
A small point, perhaps, as MSNBC showed the first hit at 4:56 a.m., Sept. 12. But it is one of the disconcerting early findings of the memory studies. They confirm that even for an event woven into our synapses forever, memories are human constructs: They are amalgams of what we experienced, read and pieced together afterward, and what we would like to be true – not documentary records.
Seven weeks after the attacks, Dr. Pezdek and colleagues asked almost 700 people ranging from New York students to California firefighters 22 questions designed to assess their “event” memory : Which tower fell first?; and their “personal” memory : where were you when you heard?
A reigning theory of memory holds that the emotionality of an event enhances its memorability. But Dr. Pezdek found that although “New Yorkers’ and airline workers’ event memories were vivid and accurate, their personal memory wasn’t,” she says. “Many didn’t remember who told them, or who they were with.”
Perhaps, she speculates, emotionality is an either/or thing, enhancing the memorability of event memory or personal memory , depending on which is most important to the individual. For those directly affected by the attacks, like New Yorkers, the emotionality enhances the memorability of the event itself, while personal details are more of a jumble. Myself, I’m fuzzy on exactly when I finally made it home after working all night. But for others, such as Californians, the personal memory of being told is more emotion-laden, so they recall that better.
More distressing is how sure people are of their memories . “Those who say they saw video that morning of the north tower being hit were extremely confident in the accuracy of that memory ,” says Dr. Pezdek. “But just as when eyewitnesses testify in court, there is no correlation between confidence and accuracy.”
Researchers from nine universities are finding something similar. From Sept. 17 to 23, they asked some 1,500 people at eight U.S. sites and in Sweden for their memories , both event and personal, of Sept. 11. “In terms of content, people are surprisingly inaccurate,” says psychologist William Hirst of New School University in New York. They have false memories of the airlines and number of planes involved, for instance.
To test the accuracy of personal memories , the consortium asked the same people the same questions last month, before the intense media coverage started up again. The scientists are now comparing the answers to see if the “where were you” memories faded or changed. “We hope to see what kind of emotion – shock, fear, sadness and others – had the strongest effect,” says psychologist Liz Phelps of New York University, who helped put together the research consortium.
What is already clear is that, contrary to the notion of “flashbulb” memories as detailed, accurate mental images of a traumatic event, memories suffused with emotion are barely more likely to be true than memories of last Tuesday’s lunch. In at least some cases, “Traumatic memories are constructed, not veridical,” says Dr. Pezdek.
The Sept. 11 memory studies speak to larger issues, too. They confirm that eyewitness recall is fallible. Also, Dr. Hirst notes, voting decisions rest partly on memories – of a candidate’s behavior and record – that can be fiction. Finally, although memory lapse is something most of us (grudgingly) accept, fictitious memories are another matter. If what we think to be true about our experiences is instead false, are the very bases of our identity and our beliefs illusions?
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Updated September 13, 2002[/quote]