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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tracing the Tangles of Memory

LOS ANGELES -- As part of the Whitewater hearings, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been asked to remember a great many events that happened two or 10 years ago. When she can't remember, critics accuse her of lying. To prove their case, they point out contradictions between what she remembers and the memories of members of her own staff. Clearly, the critics conclude, someone is not telling the truth.


But this kind of reasoning has memory experts gritting their teeth.


"It's ridiculous,'' said University of Washington memory expert Elizabeth Loftus. "People have forgotten far more important things than how many meetings they had or who was at them.''


For example, a significant portion of people involved in minor car accidents had forgotten the incidents when interviewed merely a year later, Loftus said. In fact, psychologists say that memory is notoriously unreliable.


"Memory is not a literal recording,'' says Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter. "It's more like a kind of [evolving] sculpture.''


Over time, psychologists say, people refashion their memories so drastically that most of us routinely remember things that never happened -- while forgetting things that actually did.


Both Schacter and Loftus brought up the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the testimony of Anita Hill as a classic case of the public misperception of the basics of memory.


"Everyone assumed that one of them was lying,'' Schacter said. Equally likely, both researchers said, is that Hill and Thomas were both telling the truth -- and honestly remembered the same events very differently.


Arguments about who remembers what -- and who's lying about what they remember -- are as common among friends and spouses as among public figures. Robert Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, cites those heated arguments people get into with their husband or wife over who said what.


"You wonder how you could have married such an ignoramus,'' he said. "You swear on the Bible and all that. You're very confident about that representation you have in your memory [of what was said].''


Confidence, however, has nothing to do with accuracy. In most cases of disputed memories, there's no way of telling who's memory is closer to the truth. But the Watergate scandal provided an unprecedented opportunity to compare memories with the real thing -- thanks to the notorious tape recordings made by Richard Nixon.


One of the prime figures in the affair, White House counsel John Dean, was regarded as a human tape recorder because he remembered even arcane details of events and conversations. However, a psychological study that compared Dean's memory of events to recordings found that while Dean was accurate about the gist of most conversations, "he was often grossly wrong about what was literally said,'' Schacter said.


In everyday life, it's impossible to compare memories to tape recordings. Chances are, no one will ever know whether Mrs. Clinton's memory lapses were simply normal byproducts of the way our brains work or something more sinister.