hypnotistDuring the filming of the retrospective Beatles documentary, ‘Anthology’, in the early 90s, Paul, George and Ringo were largely interviewed individually and it was noticeable on occasion that each recalled certain key incidents thirty years on very differently. It seemed to highlight the difficulties when more than two people recall a particular event at which they were all present; which is the genuine recollection – all or none?

We naturally view the world from our own unique perspective, so it’s inevitable that if two or three witness the same event, recalling it in the immediate aftermath will differ slightly, though not as much as when recalled days, weeks, months and years (even decades) on. By then, they are so removed from the moment that each successive recollection is a photocopy of its predecessor, so – as somebody once pointed out – we’re not remembering the event, but remembering the last time we remembered it. Distance alters the event in our heads and does so differently for each individual witness. To use just one seemingly trivial example, if we were present at the event with people we still see regularly, in our recollection they don’t look exactly as they looked at the time; we see them essentially as they are now, which clearly isn’t the same as viewing a photograph or cine-film of the event, when we notice the different hairstyles or clothes that were specific to that era.

Similarly, when we summon up an incident from childhood, rarely do we recall factors that would hit us immediately were we to be suddenly transported back into our prepubescent bodies – i.e. how small we were and how big our surroundings were, not to mention the adults towering above us. Such a sensation is something memory appears to have a problem dealing with, and the physical distinctions between then and now only strike us if we happen to revisit our old infants’ school and see how tiny the chairs we sat in were. Our minds reconstruct the event of forty-odd years before to a degree of accuracy, but do so in a context we can relate to in the here and now; it’s extremely difficult to envisage something as significant as being several feet smaller than we have been for the entirety of our adult lives.

Our household didn’t acquire a colour television until 1976; prior to that, everything I saw on TV at home was in monochrome – yet my vivid memory of Jon Pertwee regenerating into Tom Baker in 1974 is one of sitting by the telly and watching the landmark moment in colour, perhaps because I’ve subsequently seen the transformation many times since in colour. Another simple example of how memory shouldn’t be trusted implicitly comes with the case of a favourite film one has viewed so many times that quoting lines from it just before the actors speak them is second nature; yet the recital is rarely word-perfect. It’s only when we watch again that we realise we got the odd word wrong or added a word that isn’t actually there in the script. Every time we repeat what we believe to be the quote, we’re subconsciously rewriting the lines based on the recollection of what we said last time we recited it.

Taking all of this into account, it’s worth noting how much reliance is placed upon remembrance of an event, especially when the police question witnesses to a crime, which is why they’re supposed to be trained not to influence the witness during questioning if there’s an uncertain pause, hence the tradition of the identity parade rather than the police simply producing a photo of the man they know did it and saying ‘Is this the man?’ The person helping the police with their inquiries may have run through the event in their heads several times before committing it to an official statement, and the natural instinct of memory is to iron out inconsistencies and any illogical elements so that it can be recounted with a cohesive clarity that makes sense when said out loud.

When recalling a visit to the school careers officer during his Sheffield adolescence, Michael Palin once remarked the officer’s response to every pupil’s career ambitions when asked what they wanted to do was met with a straightforward ‘I think it’s Pilkington’s Glass for you, young man’, reflecting his blatant role as a recruiter for one of the city’s chief employers.

The psychoanalytical branch of medicine over the last twenty-five years has been taught to make similarly lazy assumptions where memory is concerned, with shrinks resorting to any anxiety their patients express as being rooted in a childhood trauma usually centred on sexual abuse by a family member. And I know this to definitely be the case, for I was pressurised into manufacturing such a memory myself when in therapy. Thankfully, I rejected this because I was convinced had something of that nature happened there was no way I wouldn’t have remembered it all my life.

The magician Derren Brown always makes the point that there is no magic involved in his ingenious scams involving members of the public, merely psychological suggestions he knows people are susceptible to. When one considers the shifting sands that constitute memory’s flexible foundations, and how vulnerable it can be to such suggestions, it’s rather worrying to realise the level of importance that is placed upon it in legal circles these days, condemning men to lengthy prison sentences for crimes that, in many cases, have only the unreliable witness of memory as evidence.

American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has probably done more research into the untrustworthy nature of memory and the way in which it can be manipulated than anyone else over the last forty years; her work at the Department of Transportation opened her eyes to the variations in separate accounts from those who’d been witness to the same traffic accidents and she realised how easy it was to implant suggestions as to what had happened. She expanded this into a series of experiments that were not a million miles from the mind games of Derren Brown.

Her pioneering work in the field of false memory led to her becoming an expert witness in criminal court cases that rested on eyewitness evidence, some of which had been the result of hypnosis. She remains convinced that a mass moral panic along the lines of the Salem-like ‘Satanic Abuse’ crazes of the 90s usually has its roots in the manipulation of memory and the dangerous reliance upon it as cast-iron evidence.

More recent events on this side of the Atlantic appear to vindicate Elizabeth Loftus’ findings, but we only have to reunite with old friends or family members in a communal trip down Memory Lane to be aware of how our individual recollections change as we age. Could we swear for sure our own memories are the definitive article and everyone else has simply got it wrong when theirs contradict ours? Take that uncertainty into a Court of Law and you’re on very rocky ground indeed.

© The Editor


  1. It’s not a new technique for an interrogator to insist (aggressively) that the person he’s confronting “must have done it”. Further, under prolonged questioning, it becomes ever easier to find inconsistencies in what the person in the hot seat is offering in his/her defence. Yes, the best way to adduce the truth probably is to nitpick. However, intimidation is a different kettle of fish.

    On a personal level, my sister and I often disagree about our memories of a childhood event. Part of that is undoubtedly because I’ve always had a lousy memory. On the other hand, she was 9 when I left home. Some of the events she claims “we” were both present at must, from the context, have taken place after I left home. So the other half of “we” was probably either our brother, or one of her friends.

    It’s said that reviving old memories, e.g. via photographs, is a good way to help dementia sufferers. It wouldn’t help me: I’d only end up more confused.

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  2. I recently met up with some folk I haven’t see for 35 years and none of us could remember who we were or what mischief we had got up to

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  3. Re david_uwi’s post, people have indeed confessed to crimes they didn’t commit.

    In a notorious case in Ireland a few years’ back, the cops stitched up a vulnerable heroin addict for a brutal double murder:

    They did eventually get justice for the victims and nail the real culprit. No succour, though, for the unfortunate Dean Lyons who died a few years after his false confession. Of course, he might well have died young in any case due to his heroin addiction, but we don’t know that for sure. In their defence, the cops did publish an apology to the family of Dean Lyons in national newspapers.


    1. Yes, it’s funny how the memory plays tricks. Being an amateur nerd when it comes to archive TV, I know Andy didn’t appear in colour until 1970, though I don’t think I actually saw him in colour until I purchased a VHS tape of his colour stories from a charity shop about ten years ago.


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