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Sharon Hill on the Unsettling Truth About Everything You Think You Remember

by Daniel Loxton, Dec 05 2013

Doubtful News editor and fellow cryptozoology critic Sharon Hill has a new post up at her Huffington Post: Weird News column on the topic of the fallibility of memory—and on the very serious implications of that fallibility upon eyewitness testimony, whether of Bigfoot, Satantic Ritual Abuse, or regular everyday crime. Most everyone who follows the skeptical literature (or of course the psychological literature) is to some degree aware that memory is fluid, dynamic, creative stuff by its nature. (I’ve written about the fluidity and impermanence of memory myself.)

Yet knowing that memory is constructed is different from knowing it as a visceral fact about our personal experience of reality. Like the knowledge of death, it’s a dizzying truth that we use in rhetoric, yet shrink away from in our inner minds: none of our memories are entirely real. They’re all simulations, “based on a true story” recreations—except for those that are altogether fictional. Our childhood home. The kiss of our first love. That epic, life-changing adventure we know we will never forget. Our cries of despair. The joy of a wedding, a discovery, a birth. Moments of grief. Moments of hope. The truth is that all of our past experiences are gone, never to be savored again.

We humans are storytelling animals. This extent of this storytelling goes deeper than we can easily hold in our minds. Our very existential continuity is a story we tell ourselves.

Sharon takes up this theme in her matter-of-fact style:

One of the major disconnects between those who practice effective skepticism and those who believe in paranormal possibilities (or are emotionally invested in unexplained mysteries) is over the topic of anecdotes and witnesses’ testimony.

If there is one fact that I wish we could all accept early in life, I would vote for drumming in the idea that memory is not like a tape recorder. If we learn this truth about the human mind, we could avoid so much trouble.

Memory is constructed. Pause a moment and let that sink in.

Memory is not objective, it is constructed by our own brains. It is not burned, or ingrained, or seared into it, as much as we would like to think that is the case. The truth is less precise, uncertain, and disturbing.

Most of us rely on our short- and long-term memories nearly every moment of the day. For the most part, our recollections are simple and good enough to get us through situations and day-to-day activities without much trouble, but false memories are ubiquitous.

Continue reading at the Huffington Post:

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4 Responses to “Sharon Hill on the Unsettling Truth About Everything You Think You Remember”

  1. Daniel says:

    The “Satanic Abuse Panic” mentioned in the linked article is one of the biggest travesties of the American justice system in recent years, and it goes well beyond the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. It was a coming together of pseudoscience of the worst sort and prosecutorial misconduct that hopefully resulted in a few lawyers being disbarred. The “experts” that the prosecution used in those cases makes your typical Big Foot proponent look like Stephen Gould.

    On a related note, and since it gets mentioned with some frequency in skeptic and scientific circles, absent a complete failure of a judge and prosecutor, eyewitness testimony alone is not really sufficient to warrant a conviction. That is, even if it seems obvious, there has to be some kind of circumstantial evidence to back up the claim, like a body, the lack of an alibi by the accused, motive, etc. So for example, someone can’t just say I saw Mr. Jones kill Jimmy Hoffa, and expect a prosecution to occur. Similarly, while we should obviously be skeptical, if not completely discount someone that says they saw Big Foot, if someone were to actually come forward with a Big Foot corpse, a scientist would not be out of line to consider what that person claims he saw to draw additional conclusions about the creature.

    • tmac57 says:

      Well then I guess the Satanic Panic cases were “…a complete failure of a judge and prosecutor.” Because that is exactly what happened there.
      No reason to think it couldn’t happen regularly in any court system for any offense.
      Many an innocent person has gone to prison on the testimony of jail house snitches and plea bargaining criminals,as well as corrupt police. The percentage may be small,but because we imprison more people than just about any other country,even a small percentage adds up to a huge travesty of justice.

      • tmac57 says:

        Oh,I forgot to include lying,coerced,and mistaken witnesses.

      • Daniel says:

        I should have noted that there is one type crime where a conviction can truly come down to eyewitness testimony, which are some types of sexual assault cases. And not surprisingly that’s where you probably have the greatest amount of wrongly convicted people in proportion to total convictions.

        Otherwise, the point was not to say the criminal justice system is fail safe, which it is obviously not. And believe me, I’m not really an apologist for it. It just sometimes gets lumped in with other things, and I think unfairly.