The Problems With Memory And Eyewitness Testimony

How do you know that memories from your past are accurate? How do you know that the events you remember actually even occurred? These questions may sound like either the set-up to a riddle or the first lecture of a freshman-year philosophy class, but they are neither.

These questions are actually related to how we think about certain aspects of criminal defense. Specifically, they refer to the reliability of eyewitness testimony, which for decades was considered the “gold standard” of evidence. But brain research is proving that human memory is not nearly as reliable or accurate as we’d like to believe.

Most people think of memory like a video recording. The things we see and hear throughout the day get imprinted on our brains and we need only to recall them later. Unfortunately, our brains don’t work like that.

Instead, different parts of memories may be stored as fragments in different parts of the brain. Each time we recall a memory, we actually reconstruct it. Because of this, the memory is likely to change a little each time we recall it. We may integrate new information into the memory or be influenced by things other people have said about it.

Some studies have even shown that if you throw in some real-life details from a person’s past, you can sometimes implant a false memory such as committing a crime or witnessing a significant event that never took place. If our own autobiographical memories can be so easily altered, what does that say about events we may have witnessed only fleetingly?

The fallibility of memory has obvious implications when it comes to eyewitness testimony in the courtroom. Even a witness who is absolutely sure about what they saw can be very wrong. For this and other reasons, juries need to be instructed that eyewitness testimony is not considered as reliable as it once was.

If you are facing criminal charges, eyewitness testimony is one of many types of evidence that can and should be challenged. Before you decide that your fate is sealed, please discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Source: Psychology Today, “Your Memories Are Not Fixed in Stone,” Art Markman, March 10, 2015

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