On Brian Williams and You and Your Doctor’s Memory

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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10 Responses to On Brian Williams and You and Your Doctor’s Memory

  1. harry bolles says:

    Nice story, Blair. I guess the question becomes why do some people – without being involved in memory mansion exercises – have better, less embellished memories? do you have a better memory if your life is pretty undramatic, or the reverse? I wonder, too, if honest people have better memories than criminals… If I am a habitual liar, will I more likely forget the truth?

  2. Ricki Lewis says:

    Great post, Blair. A terrific novel on the bestseller list now, “The Girl on the Train,” deals with faulty memories enhanced with alcoholism. The plot is similar to that of “Rear Window,” and the twists and turns are driven by the protoganist’s recalling events yet not knowing which memories to trust. The reader doesn’t know which of the protagonist’s memories are real either. Lots of suprises.

    I feel sorry for Brian Williams and wish more attention was paid to what he has gotten right. But not too sorry — he makes $10 million a year!

  3. Amy Neifeld says:

    This is consistent with my experiences of memory. Your anecdote of your companion remembering being the active one is very similar to experiences I’ve had with my sister- in which I question who it happened to. I wish I had the clarity that other people seem to have, but then I realize that this may be an illusion. I’m not so quick to be critical of Brian Williams.

  4. JoAnne Richard says:

    I grew up in a family with six children. When we would get together and remember our childhood I would be amazed at my siblings’ recollections. It did not happen that way! I was there! How could he or she tell such a tale knowing we were all witnesses to the events? When I would contradict, my sibling would be amazed at my recollection. Later I listened to my children tell versions of their childhood that did not match up with my memories.

  5. A recent NPR story raised the notion of “the first recollection of a memory is the most accurate” — after that you are remembering reconstructions.

    Still, would one really misremember being “fired upon”. That seems like a once-in-a-career event for high falutin’ journalists?

  6. Blair Bolles says:

    ‘First memory is the most accurate’ sounds reasonable, but Piaget did experiments showing that later memories can be more accurate if a person comes to have a better understanding of the process of just what happened.

    Episodic memory is especially bad. It requires putting many details together and is shockingly open to suggestion. Think of us all as confabulating novelists when we are talking about the past… except for me, of course. I really remember things right.

  7. Sandy Koo says:

    You framed the memory issue in a way that makes me question some of my younger recollections. I guess where there are 2 parties to an experience, it would be unlikely that they both will remember the same way. I guess we can question all eyewitness accounts.

  8. Esther says:

    Fascinating and unexpected Blair Bolles take on memory, on Brian , and on what we think we know. Dear Blair I’d be happy to hear what you think about all things.

  9. Ben Kotowski says:

    I am keen to read your book, for memory is often a sticking point among friends, family and in business situations too. When people try to recollect a shared memory it really becomes apparent that they are collectively reshaping the incident as much as recalling it. This has led me to be very skeptical of the use of memory as anything but a general guide when it comes to hard facts, but I find it fairly accurate for recalling general impressions and the emotions of a given time.
    As for Brian Williams, he is supposed to be an accurate source of news, even a journalist, if that is still possible today. And as such he has at his disposal all of the necessary paraphernalia — cameras, producers and production assistants, note books, digital recorders, recorded interviews…— to insure that his memory does not fail. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his recollection was faulty it is hard to see how he could use that as an excuse. He was not, after all, sitting around the kitchen table shooting the breeze with a few cronies.

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