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The Role of Memory in Eyewitness Testimony and The Potential for False Memories


Third Year, Psychology Major

     Our memory is a complex system that requires using a lot of moving parts to make the image in our mind we see as memories. When they are stored in our minds, they aren't sitting in little memory orbs like we see in the movie “Inside Out”. Instead, our brain has a bunch of dierent regions that specialize in dierent tasks, including many systems we rely on for memory storage. The brain area that's the most important in revisiting memories is our hippocampus. It's a little c shaped area that is like a meeting point for the sensory information we want to retrieve to access a memory. When we give our minds a cue, it pulls relevant information from dierent storage areas. That sensory information then meets up and consolidates in the hippocampus to try and make a picture as well as we can of the events we want to remember.

     The problem with false memories comes in here. Our brains really don't like gaps in understanding, so when we are missing a piece of information, we sometimes make up or misremember information that wasn't actually happening in the rst place. Because we now understand that our memories aren't a full image in our brains, we can discuss why storing information this way leads to memory errors. If you had to grab all the pages of a book from a disordered mess every time you wanted to read it, and then try to get them in order, it's understandable why sometimes we may mess up the exact details, especially if we have to make a mess of the pages every time we nish reading. In addition, our minds are super ecient and decide to prune back some memories that we don't really need anymore. If the amount of energy it takes to keep the information in our mind takes up more space than its worth, we trim these memories away like dead tree branches. If we try and reconstruct that book but half the pages have been thrown away, it makes our job even harder to make sense of that story, especially if we haven't read it in a long time.

     The most relevant kind of memory failure in memory recollection for eyewitness testimonies is suggestibility. Memory suggestibility is a form of recall failure that alters a memory based on leading questions asked about an event. These questions will inuence the way a person remembers the details of that event based on what they are prompted to remember about it. One famous study that demonstrates this was conducted by the researchers Loftus And Palmer here at the University of Washington. In this study, they showed participants of a car crash and then asked them how fast the cars were going, using dierent verbs including “hit”, “bumped”, “collided”, and “smashed”. The participants' answers varied by over 10 miles per hour correlated with the verb they were suggested, with much slower speeds for those suggested “bumped” as opposed to “smashed”. They followed up this question by asking whether or not they saw broken glass from the cars near the accident. Even though there was no broken glass, the individuals given the verb “smashed” were signicantly more likely to condently say that they were compared to the control group and those given the verb “hit”. This study gives us a good example of how the way we remember an event is dependent on what we are suggested to remember about it. The pages of our metaphorical book that agree with what we are being told will assemble the new copy, leaving the pages with details that contradict what we were prompted to recall out of the new version.

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