I’ll start by acknowledging what this post is not: It is not a defense of Brian Williams. I don’t actually care about Brian Williams’ continued employment as the anchor of NBC nightly news. From my limited perspective, he seems like a nice enough guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously, and who has good taste in music. But I don’t know him, and I have no real understanding of who he is as a person. News anchors are not interesting to me. I haven’t watched a nightly news broadcast in more than a decade. We’re also talking about a guy with many millions of dollars in the bank, who will encounter no major difficulty in losing this job, or finding a new one.
My heart does not bleed for Brian Williams.
That established, I can’t help but notice that this issue has produced a variety of people presenting their perspectives on the structure and function of human memory as if they were experts, and that almost none of them have a perspective that could be remotely described as being congruent with what science has discovered about how memories are structured or function in the human brain. Which is not all that remarkable in itself (we have an entire press industry based on non-experts presenting their opinions as if they are actually representative of reality), but when applied to memory we run the very real risk of re-cementing a variety of misconceptions in the public mind that could do real damage to any prospect of changing the way folks think about human memory. And that’s a big deal, at least if you want to avoid things like wrongful convictions for crimes and similar situations where far too much faith is placed on what is a very faulty system for recalling what has actually happened*.
Here’s a brief, watchable summary of how human memory works. I’ll wait while you watch it, but here’s the take home message: Memories are encoded by the brain, consolidated into a neuro-chemical signaling pathway, and then reconstructed every time the memory is recalled. It’s that last bit that’s the most important. Your memories of events are rebuilt every time you remember them. This is a big deal, because it means that you can (and do) misremember events with incredible ease. It also means that science has been able to implant false memories of events into the brains of other animals. Here’s a good Radiolab episode on the topic.
We see this kind of thing come up all the time. It’s probably the reason for this chart of the different recollections of the events surrounding this past summer’s shooting of Michael Brown by former police officer Darren Wilson. It’s definitely the reason why eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause wrongful convictions that have been overturned by the Innocence Project (playing a role in 72% of them). The page on memory biases on wikipedia lists more than 50 different ways that human memory can be impaired. And yet the persistence of memory-related** misconceptions in the minds of the larger public has not diminished. If the nature of the comments surrounding this recent issue are any metric, it seems like just as many otherwise-smart people as ever think that memory is something that it is empirically not.
The bottom line seems to be that those folks who are critiquing Mr. Williams because of a faulty memory should probably think twice about doing so. If your argument is that he should have corroborated his story before bringing it out in public (essentially that he was lazy), or that you think he was deliberately lying (though I’m not at all sure what purpose such a lie has served him over the past decade), that’s fine by me. But if you’re angry because you think his memory should be “better” than the one he has, I think you’re wishing for something that doesn’t exist. It’s almost like we all loved “Serial”, and then immediately forgot about the only moral it had: Memory is a terrible record of events and the way it is regarded by the general public is dangerous to the functioning of society. The sooner we all recognize that memories are far from what we generally think they are, the better off we’ll all be.
*It should be obvious that while the memory system of the human brain is terrible at recalling objective reality, that’s not its real purpose. It’s actually quite good at its real purpose: Keeping us from dying by providing us with a stereotyped record of our past experiences.
**I know, and I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help myself.