The Current

'Memories are malleable': Looking for truth behind false memory

Brian Williams has been caught-out describing a scene he didn't actually experience. But people who study memory are listening to the NBC anchor with different ears. They say all memories can be false anyway and that how our mind works in recall means most of us can get it wrong.
Is it possible to change your memory of an event and not even know it? (Mark von Minden)

Brian Williams has been caught-out describing a scene he didn't actually experience. But people who study memory are listening to the NBC anchor with different ears. They say all memories can be false anyway and that how our mind works in recall means most of us can get it wrong. 

Listen to cognitive scientist Christopher Chabris explain how memory distortion works: (Runs 1:13)

By now you've likely heard the story about the story that NBC News anchor Brian Williams was apologizing for last week. Williams has now been suspended from his job at NBC for 6 months without pay. That's because the account of what happened during a helicopter ride-along in Iraq has changed in some significant ways since he first reported it, 12 years ago.

Did Brian Williams lie, fib, embellish or exaggerate? Or had he -- as he said -- "made a mistake in recalling the events"? (Phil McCarten/Reuters)

What started as a harrowing story of enemy fire experienced from afar, has morphed into an even more harrowing tale.... of being right there in the chopper that was hit by an R.P.G.

After retelling the embellished story once more earlier this year, reporters from the military newspaper Stars and Stripes started following up on leads that something was fishy... and soon Brian Williams was forced to apologize.

I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago. I want to apologize. I said i was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft.- Brian Williams, NBC News Anchor

But apologize... for what? Had he lied, fibbed, embellished or exaggerated? Or had he -- as he said -- "made a mistake in recalling the events"? And how unusual is it for a dramatic tale to grow taller through the years?

Christopher Chabris is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Union College and is author of the book "The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us." We reached him in Schenectady, New York.

Oscar Wilde once described memory as the diary that everyone carries around with them... But after what we've been hearing so far, it's a fair question how much anyone's mental diary is fiction, and how much is true.

Julia Shaw is an Associate Professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire. We reached her in London, England.

Have thoughts you want to add to this discussion?

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This segment was produced by The Current's Sarah Grant and Naheed Mustafa.

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