On Brian Williams and You and Your Doctor’s Memory


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Guest post by Blair Bolles

Memories are back in the news these days. Folks are lambasting NBC’s Nightly News Anchor, Brian Williams, as a Pinocchio, building up a record of having led a more exciting life than truth allows. Williams blames the error on a faulty memory, conflating events, but his apology was more of a poo-poo than an abject wail, “I got it wrong! How could I?”

Years ago a friend and I had a small adventure in which I was the active person and he was the tagalong. Over the years I have often regaled folks with a laughing tale of what happened. Then one day I heard my friend recall the incident and as he laughed about its details, one thing stood out for me. He was the active person and I was the unmentioned tagalong. Which of us was right?

Let me just say I have always been very confident of my memories. Sadly, confidence in one’s memory is no evidence of accuracy.

For a memory can be very clear and yet wrong. I once ran across a passage in my journal that seemed proof positive that I misremembered the timing of an incident. My reaction was not, Oh, I see. It was blank-faced amazement. How could that be? I remember the whole thing so well.

Some years ago I wrote a book called Remembering and Forgetting: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Memory, which forced me to spend a year or so investigating the topic of memory. It left me doubting not just mine, but everybody’s memory. I learned that remembering is not like pulling things out of a database; it is much more like a creative act of imagination, in which a person’s biases, moods and assumptions shape the product. Also important is how closely you paid attention. Chances are, if the doctor tells you you have cancer, your attention will wander away from the rest of the medical report. You will have no reliable memory of the rest of the news.

Here’s a funny story about my book. Some years after it came out I was at a dinner party where one of the guests had not only read the book, but he added that he loved it. It turned out he was a professional memory expert who made his living teaching people how to remember names. He said to another guest that he loved my book because it was so different, unlike any other book on memory he had read before. “It opens…” he told the listener, and then he stopped. He couldn’t remember the opening of the book that he was busy praising, and he was the memory whizz, able to meet 55 people and recall their names at a glance.

So let’s not be so cocky and insistent that somebody must be a liar because after all how could he forget something like that? We are the heroes of our lives and we remember ourselves as actors amid tagalongs. We are impressed by surprises, but really complicated surprises (like a unique book) are hard to remember, just because they are surprising and don’t fit into the ready-made molds.

Part of every person’s education should include strong and convincing lessons in memory’s fallibility.

Doctor’s should not just write everything down; they should consult their notes every time. And they should not expect their patients to remember what was said. Written or video copies of the same information should be part of any medical advice. And as Brian Williams is being reminded, journalists too should consult their notes. When preparing a news story, Williams would not have accepted the uncorroborated memory of a stranger; he should not have accepted his own memory either. But that advice is hard to take.

 


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