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The Big Questions: Study says our memories rewrite history

Rob Elder interviews DonnJ. Bridge Ph.D. for 'The Big Questions' podcast Feb. 6 2014. | Geoff Scheerer/Sun-Times Media

Rob Elder interviews Donna J. Bridge, Ph.D., for "The Big Questions" podcast on Feb. 6, 2014. | Geoff Scheerer/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 13, 2014 10:30AM



Time heals all wounds, or so the adage goes.

Yet, Dr. Donna Bridge takes issue with that.

“Partly we forget and partly we change our memories,” says Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

In essence, our memory rewrites the past, as Bridge and co-author Joel Voss wrote in the newest issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

In this episode of “The Big Questions” podcast, we ask: “How do memories rewrite history?”

Below is an excerpt of our talk, but the entire conversation in which we address what her research means for eyewitness testimony and dating. It can be downloaded via SoundCloud or streamed via YouTube. ”The Big Questions” is part of the Sun-Times Media Local Podcast Network.

Q: Part of your study says that memory is not a video camera. Can you explain that?

Donna Bridge: Well, our memory is constantly changing. So we have also shown how every time you recall an experience that increases the likelihood that you’ll remember that event in the future. So recalling a memory is good for your memory …

But every time you recall an experience, you tend to, I don’t know, mix up details, distort people’s names or places ... things like that. And so what ends up happening is that you tend to remember whatever you recalled last. So if you recalled something incorrectly, the next time you will recall that incorrect fact.

Q: Okay, that is frightening. As a researcher, how does this affect your relationship with your own memory?

Bridge: Well, not that much because of how I see memory ... our memory is distorted, it’s not accurate. I just don’t see that as being the primary function of memory. Instead I see it as an adaptive process that allows us to interact with our environment and go through life as a good person. ... I think that our memories inform our behavior and that sometimes changing our memories to fit our current experiences is actually a good thing.

Q: How can we know anything at all about ourselves, about history?

Bridge: You learn especially as you get older, with history that what is in the history books wasn’t at all a reality. We kind of make up our own paths as we go, and I think it is a good thing. We have this narrative of our lives and I think that says a lot more about who we are than actually the experiences we have happen to us. And even how we responded to those experiences. I think it is more so how we look back on those experiences that really shape us.

Q: The New Yorker recently did a retrospective on William S. Burrows and he remembered being molested as a 4-year-old. Axl Rose also had this sort of memory [of sexual abuse]. Now this is in the news again with Dylan Farrow accusing Woody Allen of molesting her as a child. So what does this mean for that kind of memory?

Bridge: My perspective on the childhood memories is that I would never want to be a jury member on one of those cases. Maybe it’s possible that these memories have been suppressed for a long time and then finally they’re coming up.

With the Dylan Farrow case, it sounded like it was a known thing, and now it’s just coming out. That’s more believable to me than never realizing it. Just having some issues all your life and then 20 years later suddenly realize, “I was molested as a child!” I think that is a lot less likely to be true than something that just hasn’t been out in the open.

Events that are recalled after they’ve been experienced are much more likely to be remembered than events that are never recalled. So, if you have never recalled something, it is very unlikely that suddenly 20 years later it will surface.

But that being said, emotional memories also add a little bit, a different flair to these processes. So for instance, this study I’ve done and how we insert new information to our memories, I haven’t done that with any kind of emotional material to see if that’s true. I have a hunch that it might be similar, but it operates in a little bit different level.

Q: We should point out that Woody Allen denies all the allegations and was never charged. And this story rages on.

Bridge: Here is the other interesting thing mainly about it … so let’s say it’s not true. I still wouldn’t blame Dylan Farrow, because I bet that she really believes it happened.

It is not that somebody is intentionally lying – our memories actually change and that’s what we think happened. ... I don’t think that they’re out to get somebody. I think they really, genuinely believe and have high confidence in their memory. It’s just … it may have changed, but how can we prove it one way or the other?

Q: Although your research doesn’t directly deal with childhood trauma, what does it mean for those kinds of cases?

Bridge: Like I just said, it casts doubt on it, but I would hate to be a jury member because – even as an expert – who I am to go and say, your memory is wrong?

Unless you have actual evidence to prove one way or the other, and like I said, emotional memories are typically very strong, and maybe they’re less susceptible to change, I do not know. I would doubt it, but it’s possible.

Listen to the entire episode via SoundCloud.

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Woody Allen’s rebuttal letter to the New York Times, which can be read here.

Dylan Farrow’s original letter can be read here.



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