The Malleability of Memory: What writers can learn from The Girl on the Train

Spoiler Alert: One of the reasons The Girl on the Train is amazing is because of the plot twists on plot twists on wow-I-did-not-see-that-coming that unfold page after page. If you want to read or watch The Girl on the Train, then I’m about to ruin the final twist that you thought you’d figured out, but you really hadn’t. If that’s the case skip the next paragraph, the rest of the post still has great information about the malleability of memory that you can incorporate into the best-seller you’re writing right now.

It takes Rachael the best part of Paula Hawkins The Girl on the Train to discover her husband’s been lying and manipulating her, that countless embarrassing, even violent, drunk moments never happened. How does Tom do this? Taking advantage of drunk vulnerabilities for one, but mostly, he taps into how our memory works.

Let me explain.

We assume memory works like a video camera. Our eyes observe the scenario before us, our brain records it, then files it away in the dips and divots or our grey matter. Totally objective, unbiased and accurate.

But our memories are about as unbiased as the news. In truth, memory is probably more like Wikipedia – a product of multiple people’s perspectives, something that changes over time, and is totally influenced by culture and the context.

In fact, psychology has demonstrated that memories are malleable – influenced by our internal workings and our external environment. This is because our brain has a lot on its plate, like when you’re walking the dog as you update your status whilst figuring out if you have all the ingredients for lasagne in the pantry and it registers a shadow shifting behind a tree. If it’s going to get through any particular day without a meltdown it has to take shortcuts. Yes, errors are a natural consequence of cutting corners – but accuracy is collateral damage in a world where quick decisions (even when faced with incomplete information) is essential for our survival…and good lasagne.

Memories are no different. They are a product of the selected information your brain took in at the time, the parts it decided were worth keeping, and then the parts it figured should be adapted each time it retrieves the information. And psychologists have taken the time to prove this, usually by recruiting unsuspecting participants:

Memories are influenced by our ego – researchers have found (by cross referencing information provided with data like school or medical reports that we tend to remember getting better grades than we really did, that our kids walked and talked earlier than they did, and we tend to over represent our part in finding Aunt Ethel’s false teeth. They even labelled it prestige enhancing memories. On the flip side we have ‘depressive realism’ – the fact that depressed people may remember things more accurately than others. It seems a little memory distortion might be good for the ego, but isn’t so helpful when it comes to accuracy.

Memory can be influenced by what we expect to see – our previous experience, knowledge and biases all mean we tend to see what we expect to see and that is the information that we encode. Studies have shown that people shown photos of a librarian remember the woman as wearing glasses. Research has proven that we are more likely to perceive a gun in a coloured person’s hand than that of a white person when they are both holding the same object. I could have sworn I last saw my glasses next to the bed…

Memory can be modified by suggestion – in this case research has shown that information learnt after a memory is created can alter the memory itself. One experiment showed participants footage of a car accident. Participants were quizzed about their memory of the footage afterwards, half were asked ‘how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?’ whilst the other half were asked ‘how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?’ It’s this subtle difference that changed how the participants remembered the accident. A week later, the participants were once again asked a series of questions, including ‘Did you see broken glass?’  Those who had been asked the smashed into version of the question were more likely to incorrectly believe that they had indeed seen broken glass.

You can plant a false memory – which is exactly what Tom did to Rachael, allowing him to manipulate her and take advantage of her. In an experiment that has been replicated many, many times participants are presented with four scenarios – three real childhood memories and one false, in this case being lost in a mall around the age of six. They are then instructed them to try to remember as much as possible about each of the four events, and to write down those details over the course of about six days. Consistently, about 25 percent of the participants not only remembered the implanted memory but also filled in the missing details. In some cases when they are told one of the memories is false, a participant will be unable to identify which one!

It’s interesting to note that confidence doesn’t translate to accuracy. Research has shown that witnesses that swear by their certainty can be no more correct than those who were ‘fairly sure’. Ironically, the degree of confidence we witness in will influence how believable they are.

How is this relevant to you as a writer? If you’re writing a crime thriller then it’s good to know that eye witness testimony isn’t as fallible as we think, you could find relationships torn apart by what we believe we’ve seen in a heart-wrenching drama, entire hero’s journeys can be driven by a memory we assume is accurate. Wounds are created, maybe even healed, when we find out what we thought was true is only a blurred, twisted version of the truth.

What do you think? Has this got you thinking about a plot twist or character arc that’s been percolating in your writers brain? Or is this relevant to the manuscript you’re creating right now? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Have a wonderful week,


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