Posts Tagged ‘Eyewitness testimony’


February 28, 2020

Memory is the title of a chapter in a book by Rowan Hooper titled Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of our Capacity.

This is one of the quotes at the beginning the chapter:
“I’m more than my brain but my memories are what makes me, so if I don’t remember then who am I?…I don’t know when to say goodbye
-Nicola Wilson, Plaques and Tangles (2015)

This poor man is suffering from Alzheimer’s. One can infer this from the title, Plaques and Tangles, as amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles are the defining features of Alzheimer’s. Even though these are the defining features, many have died who have had autopsies showing this defining evidence of the disease, but who never experienced andy of the cognitive or behavioral symptoms of the disease. The explanation is that these individuals had developed a cognitive reserve to protect them. The Healthymemory blog is dedicated to providing advice and content to help people develop cognitive reserve. Staying cognitively active throughout one’s life is important. Engaging in Kahneman’s System 2 processing, more commonly referred to as critical thinking is important. There are many posts on this topic including growth mindsets. This is a matter of growing your memory learning skills and topics throughout one’s lifetime. Meditation and mindfulness are helpful. And using mnemonic techniques to be discussed next provide for healthy memories. There is an entire category of posts for mnemonic techniques.

Memory champions are able to accomplish astounding features. There are annual World Memory Championships. The 2016 world champion was the first person to memorize in under 20 seconds the order of a deck of shuffled playing cards, and the first to memorize more than 3,000 single-digit numbers in one hour.

Joshua Foer won the 2006 World Memory Championships. Enter “Moonwalking with Einstein: the Bottom Line” in the search block at
to read about these memory contest and what true mnemonists are able to accomplish. There is also an entire category of posts on this topic under the category Mnemonic Techniques

Martin Dressler of the Donders Institute of Brain, Cognition and Behavior at Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands has shown that anyone can use the techniques of memory athletes through a function magnetic resonance image (fMRI) scanner.

When Dressler put volunteers who were new to memory training through six weeks of instruction on the memory palace technique he found that they typically doubled their ability to remember words from a random list. Plus the activity patterns of their brains had started to converge with that seen in the champion memorizers.

People with Highly Successful Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) are also discussed in the chapter. There have been many previous HM blog posts on this topic. These are people who seem to be able to recall what they did and what happened when given da date such as 14 July 1996. The actress Marilu Henner has this ability, and she has found this ability to be helpful in her acting career. She is the only example that HM knows of that has used this exceptional capability in their careers.

The chapter covers the important category of eyewitness testimony. Unfortunately, the courts have put a high level of credibility on eyewitness testimony, but eyewitness testimony is extremely unreliable. Some have the misconception that this unreliability is restricted to people of different races. This is wrong. Eyewitness testimony is poor across the board.

HM is fascinated when watching crime shows and the police try to get information from witnesses. Even when these eyewitnesses are trying to help, their memories are more likely than not to be wrong. HM marvels that the police are able to solve crimes.

Felipe De Brigard says that memory isn’t just for remembering. He argues that misremembering is so common it shouldn’t be seen all the time as a malfunction. In his view, many cases can help us construct scenarios of past events that might have happened, so as to better simulate possible events in the future, An unreliable memory may also destabilize your personality. Although you may think that your personality is something unchangeably intrinsic to you, a study in 2016 that measure personality traits over a sixty-year period showed they can profoundly alter over a lifetime.

Felipe De Brigard’s view of memory is similar to that expressed in the healthy memory blog. Memory is for time travel so that we can travel back in time to what we’ve learned an experienced, to travel into the future to assess what types of action are required to deal with these new situations.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Serious Problems in the Criminal Justice System

October 28, 2017

If HM is ever charged with a criminal offense you will not hear him saying, “I am innocent and I have faith in our system of justice.” What you would hear him say is “I am innocent, but I have little to no confidence in the criminal justice system. I shall be retaining the best justice I can afford, so should I be exonerated, I will likely end up broke.”

The reason here is that the criminal justice system has severe problems with respect to both experimental design and human psychology. The first problem is the confound in the experimental design of a trial. There is a lawyer or legal team representing the prosecution, and a lawyer or legal team representing the defense. These two teams argue with respect to evidence and the law. But a major factor here is the quality of the lawyers. Of course a lawyer will be provided to the defendant if he cannot afford one. A problem here is that, even if public defenders are good lawyers, it is likely that they are woefully overworked. What they mainly do is negotiate plea bargains. And even if the defendant is innocent, he might not want to risk a more serious sentence if he does not plea bargain. A very large majority of criminal offenses are resolved through plea bargaining. Of course, the defendant can demand a trial and will be provided a lawyer. But the likely reality is that the lawyer is overworked and can put only a limited effort at providing a defense.

So if one can provide his own lawyer one should do so. But the quality of the defense is related to the cost of the defense. Criminals from organized crime can afford the best lawyers, and this often results in the lawyers getting the case dismissed on a legal technicality, or by raising a “reasonable doubt” in the jury’s mind. If HM ever ends up on a jury, he is likely to be held in contempt of court by the judge. The reason being that HM would insist on a definition of what a reasonable doubt is. Exactly how many guilty people should be allowed to go free, and how many innocent people people should we be willing to convict. “None” is not an acceptable response. There needs to be an acceptance that there is error in the system. A perfect system is unattainable. “Reasonable doubt” is a covering phrase to disguise the reality that innocent people can be convicted. But HM has never been, and probably never will serve, on a jury. Mind you that he has reported for jury duty and will continue to report for jury duty. However, once lawyers learn that he is a psychologist they will not want to seat him in a jury. They probably fear that he shall raise issues such as this one.

Another problem is the heavy weight provided on eyewitness testimony. Many have gone to their unjust deaths primarily on the basis of eyewitness testimony. People seem to think that seeing is believing, and are unaware what is involved in visual processing. The reality is that eyewitness testimony is highly unreliable and remains so even within an individuals ethnic group.

Another problem is that juries have more confidence when a testimony is well-given without any hesitations or caveats. Again the problem is that human memory is highly unreliable and vulnerable to suggestion. For a psychologist a well-presented testimony is suggests that the witness has been coached and that the coaching might have altered his memory.

Much more could be written on this topic, but this should be sufficient to justify the statement that HM has no faith in the justice system

Readers might want to review the website of the Innocence Project, They deal primarily, if not exclusively, with DNA evidence as that is the most reliable means of overturning a conviction. But by reviewing these cases one can get some feeling for the problem of wrongful convictions.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

As I Get Older, Why Does My Memory for Names Seem to Deteriorate?

December 16, 2012

This question was posed on a Scientific American Blog. The response provided by Professor Paul Reber reflects what we currently understand about memory.1 The first point to realize is that remembering names is a problem for most of us, regardless of age. There is a common expression “I can never remember a name, but I always remember a face.” This expression is wrong on two counts. First of all, regardless of age, some names are remembered. Secondly, regardless of age, some faces are not recognized or are mistaken for the wrong person. Unfortunately, the legal system has mistakenly adopted this myth, with the result of many innocent people being wrongfully convicted (Enter “Eyewitness Testimony” into the search block). Nevertheless our memories for faces are good, and the brain has special facial recognition circuits. Names are frequently forgotten, and there is a reason that names are difficult to remember. The mind is not a camera. Recall is a creative act that changes our memories whenever we recall. During recall our brains recall traces and then try to reconstruct a coherent, meaningful response. That is why mnemonic techniques are procedures for turning input that is inherently not meaningful into something meaningful that we recall. Sometimes this recreation can be too creative and recall something that did not occur.

Suppose you see somebody at your son’s baseball practice. You remember this person as being the father of one of your son’s teammates. You are able to recognize his son, and you also are able to remember that he is an accountant with a daughter in addition to his son. Furthermore, you remember that he recently became a widower and is now a single parent. You are able to recall all this information, but you cannot recall his name.

How can this be the case? How can you remember all this information, but still suffer the embarrassment of failing to recall his name? The reason is that what you can recall is meaningful information. Unfortunately, his name is arbitrary and essentially meaningless.

As was mentioned, absent the use of mnemonic techniques to remember names, this occurs throughout our lives. Perhaps these failures become more frequent as we age, but there are techniques for countering these failures. See the healthymemory blog post, “Remembering the Names of People.”

1Reber, P. As I Get Older, Why Does My Memory Seem to Deteriorate? Http://

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Accuracy and Malleability of Memory

August 15, 2010

This blog post is another in the series inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 That book presents a table contrasting the way the brain once was regarded, the way it is presently regarded, and some conjectures about what tomorrow might hold. According to Brave New Brain, we once thought that memory is accurate and unchanging. This statement is itself inaccurate and oversimplistic. Gestalt psychologists believed that memory was governed by autocthonous forces which moved memories to a good form, basically improving on them. The British psychologist Sir Frederic Charles Bartlettt conducted research on the memory of prose stories and how they were altered during recall. The research was reported in his book, Remembering (1932). I don’t believe that anyone ever held that memory was entirely accurate and unchanging. Forgetting and errors in recall could not be ignored. In the popular culture there was a belief that memory was like a video tape of your life. I do not believe that memory researchers held to this view. The brain surgeon Wilder Penfield, during the course of brain surgery, would electrically stimulate a part of the brain and the patient would start recalling an event that presumably happened, say a birthday party, in vivid detail. This made its way into the popular culture. This belief also led to a belief in truth serums or in hypnotic trances that presumably would allow the accurate read out of this videotape. All of this has been thoroughly debunked, but you will still find it in movies and novels. It is nonsense.

According to Brave New Brain, today the belief is that memory is changeable and that events are “recollected” in a new context and slightly changed. I would revise this statement to read …that memory is more changeable and that events are “recollected” in a new context and changed, sometimes quite markedly. Current research has shown that memory is quite malleable, and that events can be implanted and believed that never occurred2. Eyewitness testimony has been shown to be quite fallible. Many have been falsely imprisoned and sent to death row to the mistaken confidence placed on eyewitness testimony by the courts and juries3.

According to Brave New Brain tomorrow, “Memory is manipulated. You can keep the memories you want and erase the ones you don’t.” I would argue that today many of us already do this. We tend to remember and believe that we did better than we actually did and that we are more liked that we actually are. Presumably Brave New Brain is referring to futuristic manipulations using chemicals, electrical, or magnetic stimulation that would allow such manipulations. Such interventions could be quite helpful for those suffering from frightening memories, depression or low self esteem, but they could be dangerous to the majority of us. Memories, sometimes painful, of what we’ve done wrong or who we might have offended are critical to learning and making necessary adjustments to our thoughts and .behavior. Someone choosing to eliminate all negative or painful memories would be well on the way to becoming a world class jerk, at best, or a sociopath, at worst.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass.

2Loftus, E. (1997). Creating False Memories. Scientific American., 277, pp. 70-75.

3Loftus, E. (1979). Eyewitness Memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.