We are not talking about journalistic hoaxes, or false claims of rape or abuse. We are talking about people of goodwill who are certain their memories are correct. But they aren’t. McGill University professor Karim Nader believes the very act of recalling a set of events changes our memory of them. It would be as if the act of playing music on a record player altered the tune or lyrics slightly—or more than slightly.
The implication this conveys for eyewitness testimony in criminal trials is fairly profound. It suggests, for one thing, that real-time accounts are more accurate and reliable than massaged testimony told many times.
Viewed this way, it’s the story that never changes that is suspect. In a Raymond Chandler short story published 65 years before Brian Williams went to Iraq, a private eye is being questioned by a homicide detective about a murder he witnessed. “I told it three times,” he says. “Once for him to get the outline, once for him to get the details and once for him to see if I had it too pat.”
The point here is that the story that never changes is not being remembered, it’s being recited.