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Time can play tricks on memory -- Arthur Eggert

September 22, 2018

People are generally poor witnesses when traumatic events, such as assaults and robberies, occur due to their biases. Everyone has subconscious scripts of what these events should look like based on their own experiences, news stories, romance novels and TV dramas.

When the real thing suddenly occurs, people mix their subconscious scripts with their sensory inputs to form a distorted picture of what is really happening. The involvement of alcohol, drugs or panic further corrupts the picture. Based on such distorted images, police officers shoot innocent black men, rape victims misidentify their attackers, and seemingly credible witnesses give conflicting accounts.

Moreover, the subconscious mind spontaneously refines this initial picture during the days, weeks and months following an incident to bring it into line with the mind’s self-image. It repeatedly adjusts details by small additions, deletions and changes until the witness feels comfortable with the picture. Witnesses become so certain of their altered view of reality that, even if it is completely wrong, they can pass any lie-detector test based on it.

It isn’t possible to establish the truth of what happened in the distant past if there is no remaining physical evidence and if one must rely on witnesses, all of whose memories of the incident have been corrupted by memory refinement. Unless a documented record was made at the time, it is impossible to know the mental state of the actors, the biases of the witnesses or what hidden factors were involved. Witnesses may sound credible, but their accounts might be hopelessly askew to the truth.

Arthur Eggert, Sun Prairie

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