Ah yes, I remember it well

Memories—even those of recent traumas—are malleable.

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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Both the justice system and the mental health profession work under the assumption that a person’s recollection of a recent and particularly traumatic event is both accurate and indelible. “But for lots of people, we found that neither of these assumptions is true,” says C. A. Morgan III ’96MA, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine. “In fact, we learned that we could shift such memories with relatively little effort. I was really surprised—and more than a little alarmed.”

Psychologists have already documented the “misinformation effect”—the errors in recall that can occur when, often long after the fact, individuals are exposed to false or misleading information about an experience. But Morgan and his colleagues are believed to be the first researchers to show that it also impacts recent memories.

The research team’s subjects were more than 800 active-duty Navy or Marine Corps personnel enrolled in the US Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape School. As part of the survival-school training, each participant is thrown into a mock prisoner-of-war camp and interrogated using methods that resembled those that might occur in a real situation. “Suffice it to say the experience” at the school “is highly stressful,” write Morgan and his team. The paper first appeared online in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry.

After a three-day ordeal that included sleep deprivation, food deprivation, isolation, and an anti–United States harangue, the trainees were freed. At a debriefing session, Morgan and his team administered a questionnaire designed to assess how well the soldiers remembered details about the physical appearance of their interrogators and the room in which they were grilled.

The questions for the control group were straightforward and fact-based: such details as the interrogator’s height, weight, sex, hair color, the presence of glasses or a weapon, and if there was a telephone in the room. Each soldier was also handed a photo array of nine small pictures of people and asked to point out the interrogator—though the staff member who had actually served as the soldier’s interrogator was never in the group.

“They did a pretty good job of getting things right, especially de-tails you could detect at a distance of 20 feet or more,” says Morgan.

But when the researchers introduced false or misleading information, the soldiers’ recall accuracy plummeted. For example, in the control group, only 16 of 158 trainees thought, mistakenly, that there was a telephone in the room; but when another group of soldiers was given misleading information on their questionnaire, 365 of 372 in that group said a telephone was present. The researchers were even able to increase the percentage of false-positive photo identifications through a variety of tricks—raising it from 53 percent to 91 percent.

“We showed that memory, even recent memory of stressful events, is malleable,” says Morgan. “We’re looking for ways we can make people, from soldiers to members of juries, more resistant to memory-altering techniques.”

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