Is Ben Carson's memory "faulty" and should we care?

The media theme on the candidacy of Ben Carson definitely shifted this weekend, with one cable news segment after another raising renewed questions about the neurosurgeon’s many books and his life story. The change I detected was that the vetting process was no longer focusing on specific what, when where, who questions and checking to see if the details matched available records, but rather whether Carson was fabricating some of his stories or simply misremembering them. The incidents in question ranged from the now popular “was he offered a full scholarship to West Point” debate to the violent impulses he battled as a youth. The WaPo has one example of the latter near the top of the page today.

The knife story — along with tales of how Carson punched someone, threw rocks and tried to hit his mother with a hammer — are essential stops on Carson’s road to redemption that makes him such an appealing candidate to some. The knife even made its way into a TV movie about Carson. But now CNN, which mounted an investigation of the story, claims it cannot find Carson’s purported victim — and the candidate himself has said the names he used in this tale and another from his reportedly violent past were “fictitious.”

“I don’t like to generally bring them in,” Carson said to reporters Thursday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “The names I used for instance are fictitious names because I don’t want to bring people into something like this because I know what you guys do to their lives‎.” He added: “I’m not going to expose them.”

Admittedly, we’re not talking about key 2016 campaign issues here, such as the hotly contested policy debate over storing grain in pyramids as opposed to farm silos, but rather the events of Carson’s youth. Therein lies much of the problem and the reason that, just perhaps, the press is indeed turning all of this into some sort of “witch hunt” when they try to match up these biographical details with public records. That works fine for things like dates of military service or votes taken on the Hill, but when it comes to our own recollections of bygone days the picture is always a bit more cloudy.

When one writes a book about history – of any sort – there are countless sources to be checked, footnotes to be generated and layers of editors to go through them all to ensure accuracy. But a person’s biography (which comprises the majority of Carson’s collection of written work) has few such options. A biography is a person’s internal monologue, describing their journey through times of their life when there were no cameras following them or reporters detailing every daily interaction for the evening edition. So how much of Carson’s recollections are spot on accurate? Should we simply assume, in the event of inaccuracies, that he’s intentionally falsifying details in an effort to aggrandize himself, or have some of the fine points faded, softened or morphed over time?

Justin Moyer examines the question this week and comes up with some interesting details that I think all of us who have passed the half century mark will find familiar. Your memories of things which happened two, three, four or more decades ago simply ain’t what they used to be.

“We don’t really remember the original; we remember the revised version,” Daniela Schiller, a Mount Sinai School of Medicine neuroscientist, explained in 2013. “… Every day we create false memories.”

This is not news to researchers. Though we may think of the act of remembering as the equivalent of pressing play on a some kind of internal YouTube, pioneering memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus said it was “more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording.” In 1974, for example, she showed how leading questions can effect memories of car collisions.

“When the experimenter asks the subject, ‘About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?’, he is effectively labeling the accident a smash,” she and a co-author wrote. “… It is natural to conclude that the label, smash, causes a shift in the memory representation of the accident in the direction of being more similar to a representation suggested by the verbal label.”

In other words: “You can influence eyewitness testimony just by investigating an event,” said Schiller.

Personally, all of the “lies” which the press has turned up thus far in Carson’s books look like much ado about nothing to me. So many of the events in question are simply the minutia which takes place in everyone’s life and the odds of everyone involved remembering them at all, say nothing of with precision, are low to say the least. Reporters have been making hay over the aforementioned meeting with General Westmoreland, who was apparently not in Detroit on the weekend Carson claims to have been “offered” a scholarship to West Point. Does that mean the meeting never happened and Carson is a liar? Or might it have been a different weekend back in the sixties and Carson’s brain has inserted a convenient holiday weekend to remember it by? Sadly, Westmoreland died ten years ago and is unavailable for comment, but the story itself is entirely believable.

And was it an “offer of a scholarship” or some words of encouragement along with a promise to put in a good word and see it happen? Our brains tend to blur the horrible things in our pasts just to spare us the pain and highlight (and perhaps enhance) the pleasant memories. It’s a self defense mechanism. A remarkable youth could certainly have caught the attention of the General and led him to encourage him to apply.

This is only one example of the many which are being batted around this week. It’s impossible to prove a negative, so the fact that reporters can’t find any of Carson’s neighbors from the early sixties who remember a spat between children or any students from Yale who were there during the Nixon era who can recall which philosophy class they were in doesn’t mean much of anything. And how many products of Yale would want to rush to the defense of a Republican anyway?

I don’t see all of this as hurting Carson. It’s his story which he appears to have told as he remembered it. If he got some of the fine grain details, dates and names wrong, nobody with any real life experience is going to hold it against him. As an exercise in this area, I stopped this morning and tried to think of how many of the kids I graduated high school with I could remember and then dusted off my yearbook. Out of more than one hundred (it was a small, rural school) I came up with a little more than a dozen and I got the surnames of several of them wrong. And I’m seven years younger than Carson.

I don’t think these particular stories are going to get any traction with voters, personally. Now, about those pyramids…

From Ed: After a long weekend to think about this, and after reading feedback from readers and friends, I’ve come to the conclusion that I was wrong to assume the worst about Ben Carson and these recollections in Friday’s post. I think Carson may have exaggerated to some extent, but he clearly didn’t fabricate this story, which is what I assumed from reading Politico’s take on the story. Readers scolded me for not approaching that report with more skepticism, and they were right to do so (and were proven right by later events, to boot). I apologize to our readers and to Dr. Carson especially for that assertion.  I have already updated the original post at the top with the same apology.

Also, I did move the original post out of the Top Picks column yesterday afternoon, although it stayed live on the site, while I considered the feedback in the comments. I wasn’t sure it would be right to have the post up in a prominent position while I questioned my take on it, at least not without either an apology or a defense of it. It’s back in the Top Picks column again (although it may have scrolled off the screen by now, depending on how many we have in that column after the weekend). I was away from the computer from Friday afternoon pretty much through Sunday morning.