Two psychologists recently embarked on a phone and internet survey of the American public’s beliefs about how memory works.
They compared popular beliefs about the intricacies of our memory with the opinions of experts, and found that people hold on to some dangerously wrongheaded ideas about memory, especially as it relates to criminal testimony. Many of these incorrect ideas are the result of memory science being twisted in media and movies (like The Mentalist or The Bourne Identity)
The widely-held misconceptions:
- People with amnesia can’t remember their name or identity (They usually can).
- A single piece of eyewitness testimony is reliable enough to convict someone of a crime (It shouldn’t be, eyewitness testimony is historically unreliable)
- Human memory works like a camera, passively recording our surroundings, and you can recall additional levels of detail later (It doesn’t work like that, memories are subject to our attention spans and mental focus)
- Once you form a memory, it exists on a mental “hard drive”, and you recall it as it happened (Memories are not written in stone, they change each time we recall them in the future and are under the influence of other memories)
- Hypnosis can help witnesses recall more accurate details of crimes (It can’t, it can only help people be more forthcoming in answering, not make them more accurate)
- People usually notice when something unexpected enters their field of view, even when distracted (They don’t, memory is deeply tied to active attention, just ask anyone who has failed the gorilla test)