Friday, February 6, 2015

Brian's Brain

I find this Brian Williams/helicopter-dreams dust storm interesting, and not because of what it does or doesn't say about Mr Williams. It's what it says, or might well say, about memory. I don't know where the line is between confabulation, or lying, or just the vagaries of the human brain, but I've had a couple of experiences that give me a certain amount of sympathy for the man.

A while back, I wrote here about when JFK spoke at my college, mere weeks before his assassination, dedicating the Robert Frost Library. In the post, among other things, I described how he stood on the steps of that just-completed structure, and how moving his speech was. Not long after I wrote that, my college, on the 50th anniversary of the ceremony, published several articles and pictures from that day. Turns out, I got it all wrong.

The speech, the one in which he said the semi-famous words, "When power corrupts, poetry cleanses," was in his first appearance of the day, in "The Cage," an indoor dirt-floored track. He spoke only briefly when he went to the library location; and not only was it not on the steps of the building, it was on a hastily constructed wooden platform, with shovels at the ready to break ground on the hole that would become it. "Completed," indeed.

And this one: like the good liberals we are, my wife and sister-in-law and I went to D.C. to attend Jon Stewart's "Rally To Restore Sanity." (Didn't work, evidently.) It was my first return to the capitol since the summer after fifth grade, and a high spot was visiting the Library of Congress, of which I had a distinct memory from that earlier visit. Yet again, I couldn't have been more wrong. In my recollection it was a huge, bland, rectangular brick building with countless straight rows of oak tables and chairs, card files, and people deep in research. It is, in fact, nothing of the sort. Among other things, it's a spectacularly beautiful building, bearing zero resemblance to my memory of it.

They were pretty shocking, those two revelations of false memory. It's nothing new, of course; eyewitness testimony, for example, is considered all but useless nowadays; still, it makes a person wonder: If who we are, or think we are, is in any way connected to our memories of ourselves, and if memories can be so wrong, who the hell are we, anyway?

As a side note, I've also wondered at what point, and by what process, did my memories become false. Surely a week after JFK's visit I could have recounted it pretty accurately. Or a month after. Probably a year, or five. So when did it morph into falsehood? Which pieces of what other recollections did my brain stitch together; and is it natural? A result of some sort of stressors, or some sort of cerebral shorthand? Or am I just an idiot, uniquely so?

If I could have so thoroughly misremembered such specific details, one in near-adulthood, is it impossible -- especially under the strains of being shot at in a hot war zone, which I was once, too, and have some memories -- that Brian Williams just got a bunch of memories mixed up? Ronald Reagan, after all, had a hard time separating what he'd seen (or acted) in movies from his actual life. (Okay, sure, no one ever said he was smart enough to be a newsman.)

I have no idea, as regards B.W. Being shot down versus not being shot down seems a bigger deviation than whether a speech occurred on a platform or on the steps of a yet-to-exist library (it's a pretty big building, though.) I've sorta liked the guy, especially in his appearances on The Daily Show. Between that, and my own experiences, I'm less ready than some to call the guy a deliberate liar. Plus, his daughter is pretty cool.

[Image source]


Anonymous said...

from what I've read this is perfectly normal and is called "memory reconsolidation". Memories are not like small movies we can replay in our mind, they just hold a few snippets that are relevant and we rebuild the entire scene from that. The scary part, as you've observed, is there is no indication about what is remembered and what is being constructed. One tip to try to get more accurate memories is to try to use as many senses as you can; were there any unusual scents, what did you hear at the time, etc.

Pieter B said...

Not a half an hour ago I told my wife almost exactly the same thing about how BW could have gotten confused. I once told a group of people the story of how my climbing partner and I had lived through a Very Near Thing as the Brits say, about a year and a half after it happened. When I finished, my climbing partner said "I don't remember it happening that way at all," and told his version.

Memory is a very fluid thing. Research has recently shown that those rare people who can remember details of every day of their lives actually change those memories a little each time they call them up and re-"download" them, if you will, to their storage neurons. I don't think he intended to deceive anyone, probably not even himself.

donnajurene said...

First, very envious of your trip to the Restore Sanity rally. Very sad Jon Stewart is leaving Daily Show. Also have felt great empathy with Brian Williams, having also caught my self in mis-remembered fabrications a time or two. I acknowledge that my forgiveness comes easier in his case because I've always liked and admired him and believe him to be well-intentioned when it comes to having the integrity of an "old fashioned" news anchor. Did you see the Daily Show's "take" on the gaffe? Pitch perfect, as usual.

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