Is long term memory really just a figment of the imagination?
Diane Ward was the only family member of the defendants to take the stand during the criminal trial last summer.
Dylan’s mother testified on the provenance of the “missing knife”, i.e., the knife that would have occupied the empty slot in the cutlery set box found in Dylan Ward’s bedroom.
There had been intense speculation regarding the whereabouts of the knife, given Dylan’s formal culinary education, and that the box was found stored in his bedroom, rather than more logically deployed as a utensil in the Swann Street kitchen.
Discussions with many courtroom observers elicited the response that Mrs. Ward was lying on the stand. Her testimony, tone, body language, etc., were in keeping with a mother trying to protect one of her offspring.
Her nervousness and weeping were completely understandable but many felt they had an air of theatrics. After all, her testimony could infuse additional doubt and keep her son free.
In looking at that sad day, a mother on the stand testifying on behalf of a son now publicly acknowledged as a “masseur” who dabbled in sadomasochism, perhaps the testimony was not false, but merely a mental fabrication of memories associated with the knife.
A study conducted by Cornell experimental psychologists Valerie Reyna and Charles Brainerd offers an interesting take on memory and recall.
Their publication, The Science of False Memory is available from many booksellers including Amazon.com. Memory researchers had already concluded there are two distinct types of memory: Verbatim, which allows us to recall what specifically happened at any given moment, and gist, which enables us to put the event in context and give it meaning.
From a news article titled “Total Recall…Or At Least the Gist” from the often thought provoking publication Miller-McCune:
“We were taught you extracted the gist from the verbatim memory,” recalled Reyna, an experimental psychologist and former senior research adviser to the U.S. Department of Education. “It was like husking an ear of corn. You threw away the husk, which was the verbatim, and you kept the gist, which was the kernel of meaning.” After years of research, though Reyna came to the conclusion that some of this theory was wrong.
After conducting numerous studies with her partner, psychologist Charles Brainerd, Reyna concluded that verbatim and gist memory are separate, parallel systems. So separate, in fact, that “there is some evidence” they occupy different sections of the brain.
Reyna and Brainerd’s hypothesis, which they call “fuzzy trace theory,” explains how we can “remember” things that never really happened. Verbatim memories generally die away within a day or two, leaving only the gist memory, which records the event as we interpreted it.
“Under certain circumstances, this can produce a phenomenon Reyna and her colleagues refer to as “phantom recollection.” She calls this “a powerful form of false alarm” in which gist memory — designed to look for patterns and fill in perceived gaps —creates a vivid but illusory image in our mind. Mental snapshots soon fade; what lingers are our impressions of an occurrence, which are shaped by the meanings we attach to it. If you doubt it, ask Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is still the butt of jokes for her insistence she came under sniper fire at a Bosnian airport.”
“What she did (in misremembering the event) is very common, very ordinary,” Reyna insisted. “People assume motivation, but you don’t need it (to explain what she did). It happens to people every day. They think they’re recalling something accurately, but they’re not.”
Obviously there are significant implications when listening and interpreting testimony in the courtroom. According to Reyna, the good news is there are clues that indicate whether a witness is remembering a situation accurately. “There are things you can look for,” Reyna said. “There are circumstances that lend themselves more to accurate testimony…such as actually visiting the scene of the crime.”
The legal community has taken interest in this matter and the underlying studies. Judges are becoming more educated and Reyna recently authored a chapter in a handbook for lawyers.
We’ll never really know whether Diane Ward’s testimony reflected what actually transpired with the “missing knife” or if it was totally a figment of her imagination. Even more interesting would be how Judge Lynn Leibovitz considered the testimony, if she considered it at all.