We’ve explored the fallibility of our memory when exploring The Girl on the Train, discovering that that memories are malleable – influenced by our internal workings and our external environment. In this week’s post, we’re going to dive a little deeper into how writers can really use this knowledge in their stories.
Eye witness testimony is technically a legal term that refers to an account given of an event a person has witnessed. Although eye witness testimonies are a mainstay in court room thrillers or police procedural stories, I think this area of human memory can provide valuable minefield for writers of any genre. It’s not just the identification of perpetrators in a murder or descriptions of crime scenes following a robbery that writers can explore. Miscommunications and assumptions based on memory can lead to all sorts of complications whether you write romance, space opera or young adult dystopian stories. And it’s all because our perceptions and memory of events can be affected by many psychological factors.
Anxiety and Stress
Seeing anything distressing is going to arouse the stress response. If your character is worried, scared, anxious or distraught, their capacity to accurately remember a scene may be compromised. As a general rule, the higher your state of arousal, the less efficiently your brain runs (it’s kinda busy trying to decide what is the most important information it needs to process so it can make some quick decisions). Research back in the 1970’s found that people who saw a film of a violent attack remembered fewer of the 40 items of information about the event than a control group who saw a less stressful version.
Considering witnessing a crime or the sudden death of a loved one is far more stressful than taking part in an experiment, it’s likely that memory accuracy may well be even more affected in real life. If your character has founded their beliefs (or wound) during this moment, then you’ve got yourself a clever little plot twist when they discover otherwise.
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, an information depository that changes over time, and is totally influenced by culture and the context.
In his famous 1932 study ‘War of the Ghosts’, Bartlett showed that memory is not just a factual recording of what has occurred, instead we try to fit what we remember with what we really know and understand about the world. In his experiment of Chinese Whispers, Bartlett had participants recall a North American folk tale called “The War of the Ghosts.” With repeating telling, the passages became shorter, puzzling ideas were rationalized or omitted altogether, and details changed to become more familiar or conventional.
Similarly, research has found that when participants are shown pictures of a white and black person arguing, the black person is more likely to be remembered holding the weapon. If a person is told the photo of a female before them is a librarian, they are more likely to remember her wearing glasses. We tend to remember our high school grades as higher than they actually were. It seems, therefore, that each of us ‘reconstructs’ our memories to conform to our personal beliefs about the world.
Once again, entire assumptions in a story can be built according to a character’s individual recollections…ones that have been shaped and constructed by our stereotypes, beliefs and expectations.
The moment a weapon becomes part of a scene, our brain will focus on it, which isn’t surprising considering how biased our brain is to threat or danger. In such a scenario, an eyewitness will focus on a weapon to the exclusion of other details in the scene.
In an experiment Elizabeth Loftus, the guru in the malleability of memory field, showed participants slides of a customer in a restaurant. In one version, a customer was holding a gun, in another, a cheque book. Participants who saw the gun version were less likely to identify the customer in an identity parade than those who had seen the far more benign cheque book version.
Now I’m going to predict that your writer’s brain could have a field day with that sort of misidentification…
The Misinformation Effect
The misinformation effect happens when a person’s recall of a memory becomes less accurate because of post-event information. Essentially, the new information that a person receives works backward in time to distort memory of the original event.
The misinformation effect has been demonstrated in a whole bunch of studies, but it was Loftus that first demonstrated it in the 1970’s. In this experiment, participants were shown a series of slides, one of which featured a car stopping in front of a stop sign. After viewing the slides, participants read a description of what they saw. Some of the descriptions stated that the car stopped at a give way sign. When participants were tested on what they saw, results revealed that participants who were exposed to such misinformation were more likely to report seeing a give way sign than participants who were not misinformed.
Fascinating, isn’t it? I’d love to hear if you have a plot device that has used any of these psychological concepts, or maybe you’ve noticed it in a book you’ve read? Can you see the value of incorporating the malleability of memory into one of your own stories? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Have a wonderful week,
PS Did you see my guest post on DIY MFA? Building your success team is invaluable in achieving writing success, find out 5 ways you can make that happen.