In the wake of the Brian Williams scandal, where he was called out for repeatedly telling an anecdote that wasn’t at all true, there’s been a lot of talk about bald-faced media LIES (a post topic in and of itself), and the fallible mechanism called the human memory (this post’s topic).
In the weeks and years immediately following the incident in question, Williams’ retelling was fairly accurate, but over time, instead of being in a helicopter well behind the action, he was right in the thick of it.
The fact is, he’s a liar. But, so am I. And, while we’re at it, so are you. Sorry, but you lie to yourself and you lie to everyone you know all the time. We all do. There’s even a word for it in psychiatric circles:
Confabulation: To fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory.
Brian Williams may have lied to make himself seem cooler, or he really could have remembered being in a helicopter that was shot down, even though it never happened.
George W. Bush said that he remembers seeing the first plane crash into the World Trade Center as it happened, even though not one media outlet covered it until a few minutes later and he was in a classroom talking to kids at the time. There’s this famous derpy photo of him being informed of the situation that proves that statement is untrue:
But let’s not use George W. as an example of anything but incompetence.
How about you?
Remember that time that you and your BFF were at that party that one time and that thing happened? Yeah, well, she wasn’t there. She was with you the night the other thing happened at that other party though, so your brain just mashed them together.
Remember how big your childhood house was, right? It wasn’t actually that big; you were smaller. When you picture your first bedroom, you can really picture it. Except it might be not like you remember.
As someone who has plenty of experience with brain FAIL, I can attest to how unreliable and completely changeable the human memory actually is.
We tend to think of our memories as written in stone, but our brains are tricksters. When we demand that they recall something and the memory in question is a little degraded, our brains quick-like-bunny dust it off and fill in the gaps with whatever. It will throw your best friend from college in a memory from college, because he was normally with you during that time period. Except he wasn’t there. And honestly, were you even there?
It’s a sobering thing coming to terms with the fact that the mechanism you rely on for quite literally everything is maybe not so good. Our brains keep us alive by regulating our heart rates, breathing and every other thing our bodies do. They’re responsible for our personalities and every interaction with the world we have ever had. They are at the heart of everything we see, taste, feel, think, read, say and do. They are also in charge of remembering it all, and detailed records don’t seem to be a priority. Good enough is often what we get.
I know first hand how pants-shittingly terrifying it can be to come to terms with just how crappy your brain is. A traumatic brain injury will do that to you. For a while, I couldn’t remember what happened two minutes ago. I had the memory of a goldfish (ahh, this blog’s title suddenly makes sense to you now!).
I had to drop out of school, quit my job and try to shove square pegs into square holes. I did Rorschach tests, word association tests, IQ tests, visual tests, cognitive tests, and tests that tested what kind of test I was testing and how I was testing on the test tests. In other words, I did a lot of tests.
I had to relearn practically everything and my memory went from the healthy memory of a 19-year old to the Swiss cheese memory of a geriatric Alzheimer’s patient. Fortunately for me, because I was so young, my brain was still pretty flexible and I was able to build new neural pathways. It took about a year for me to be functional again, but I will never get it all back. There are memories trapped in my head, mostly of my childhood, that I will never see again.
Also fortunate for me was the fact that I’ve always been a writer. Practically from the time I was old enough to write, I’ve kept a written record of my life, so even if I don’t remember something, I can usually look it up and get my account of what happened at the time. My early childhood is gone forever though.
I tell you all this to reassure you that, even with a massive head trauma like mine, you and your brain don’t have to be enemies. You don’t have to look at every memory that surfaces with suspicion. That said, you shouldn’t take everything at face value either. Your brain is mutable. Memory is not carved in stone, and even though you may see a memory vividly in your mind’s eye, it is not always to be trusted completely.
This post is in no way meant to imply that Brian Williams isn’t a big fat liar. I’m not defending him. All I’m saying is that it is possible–not likely, but just a smidgen possible–that his memory did play a trick on him and he did remember being in that shot-down helicopter when he wasn’t at all.
George W. Bush is still a big fat liar though.