Photographic memory? Negative
UI prof says recollections of JFK's death in 1963 are vivid but not exactly correct
Even though 50 years have passed since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, many who were alive then have vivid memories of that day and the days that followed.
But that memory may not be exactly correct.
"Everybody's seen video from the Zapruder film, everybody's seen John-John saluting. Everybody's seen those images," said Daniel Simons, a University of Illinois professor of psychology whose research focuses on human memory and perception.
"And every time we tell that memory, we're basically reconstructing the story of what happened. But when we experienced it, it wasn't a story. It was a whole series of fleeting events. And we piece it together in a way that makes sense. We try and interpret our experiences, and that interpretation process kind of introduces elements that might not be our own."
Memories are common of such significant events as Kennedy's death on Nov. 22, 1963.
"You've probably recalled your experiences of Kennedy's assassination hundreds of times over the course of the last 50 years. And every time you recall that sort of memory, the story becomes more kind of pat. Everything fits together in a way that makes sense. And it makes sense in light of all the reporting we've had since then of all the experiences and media coverage and other sort of details we've had since then.
"And things that didn't quite fit at the time, or things that we experienced but didn't really become part of the story, drop out. So our memory isn't a perfect recollection."
Simons and his colleague Christopher Chabris have constructed experiments to demonstrate how perception and memory can be faulty. One gave its title to a book they co-wrote: "The Invisible Gorilla."
Subjects are asked to watch a video of six people passing a basketball and must keep a silent count of the passes by those wearing white shirts and those wearing black shirts. A man in a gorilla suit walks through the group, spending nine seconds on screen. Half of the experiment subjects don't notice the gorilla.
(For more on the experiment, see http://bit.ly/dansimons)
Even someone who studies memory is not immune to distortion.
"I have a memory of where I was and what I was doing when I first heard about 9/11. It's incredibly vivid," said Simons. "But when I was absolutely certain it was right, I actually went and checked for that one. I wrote out my memories of where I was and what I was doing, everything I remembered from 9/11 a few years after the fact. I remembered being in my lab at Harvard. I remember my three graduate students all being there — they're all named Steve. I remember one of them being in another room and coming in, yelling, saying something had happened and we went and looked on his computer. And I remember a lot of detailed discussion about it, and then we set up a television in the lab. So I can remember all these details.
"I wrote about a page and a half of everything I could remember. I then contacted my three graduate students. Without telling them anything about what I remembered, I asked them each to independently recall everything they remembered. And then I looked at their memories of the experience and realized that I was completely wrong. Two of the three weren't even there. And I didn't remember a guy who was actually in my lab the entire time."
How does something like that happen?
In Simons' case, it was typical for all three grad assistants to be in the lab, and he had less interaction with the postdoc who actually was there.
"I didn't remember exactly what had happened, and I pieced it together based on what was typical, what made sense, along with some of the things I actually experienced."
That's not unusual, and it can especially happen "for these national politically important events or personally very emotional events."
"When we experience them, we remember experiencing them, but the vivid details just don't stick around. It feels like they were vivid, because nobody has any memory of what they were doing and who they were talking to on (for example) Sept. 10. So 9/10 doesn't bear any significance for them. It wasn't, for most people, a very emotional day. We don't recall those details, but we feel like we do recall the details of the highly emotional ones."
Kenneth Buel, who was a newsman at a Moline radio station when Kennedy was killed, would agree.
He'd started his day at 5 a.m. and was nearly finished when the news broke.
"I have no memories of anything earlier in the day, until that moment," said Buel.
For most, there's no way to know if a memory is accurate.
Steve Beckett, a criminal defense lawyer and law professor at the University of Illinois, has vivid memories of how he learned that Kennedy had been shot. But he didn't remember who the fellow student was who told his PE class that Kennedy was dead, until the student himself reminded him years later.
"But I remember being in the line, I remember Mr. Armer. I remember being in the gym. I remember us sitting down. There are some things that do get etched in your memory.
"And I'm one of the biggest critics of memory," he said. "We place a lot of credence in the criminal justice system on memory and on eyewitness testimony, and time and again it's been proven that it's false.
"And it isn't that people are lying. It's that people honestly believe what they're saying and what they remember."
Even politicians, Simons said, may not actually be lying when it seems they are.
"The difference between a politician and you and me is that politicians have a press corps following them around. They have reporters digging into their past and verifying what they say. If you were able to do that for yourself, you'd find some experiences of your own weren't that accurate. Hillary Clinton, some years ago, during the campaign with Obama, recalled when she was first lady, landing under sniper fire in Bosnia. And it turns out that it didn't happen.
"Nobody in the press pool at the time reported it happening. She reported running for cover across the tarmac when in reality there was a nice greeting ceremony in which a Bosnian child read her a poem. It didn't happen the way she remembered it. But a lot of the journalism coverage of it was, 'Here's somebody who's lying for her own benefit.' I don't know if she was lying. I don't know if she was just misremembering it. We all misremember things like that. We all exaggerate them."
Memory is not a videotape, Simons said.
"Even think about how you got to work today, how many different experiences you had along the way. You saw tons of different things, you talked to different people, maybe you heard stories on the radio.
"But we hear stories on the radio all the time, we see different people all the time, and if it turned out that something really important had happened this morning on your way to work and it was talked about on the radio, how many of those details would get incorporated in a way that fit the story? How many things that didn't quite fit in, like, 'Hey, I saw a billboard' — you always see billboards, that's not interesting — how many of those things get incorporated into the memory and how many of them just drop out?
"And there's a lot of change. It's something we do, we tell stories to ourselves about how we experienced things to make sense of them. And that's what the purpose of memory is, to make sense of our experiences."