How reliable is eyewitness memory? Can it be assumed that everything an eyewitness remembers about an event is true to a letter simply because they were there? What about details that don’t match up between accounts when compared side-by-side?
Because the current topic on Titanic Piano has been the music played on board Titanic, most recently focusing on the last number played by Titanic’s band, the question of survivor memory has surfaced. How is it possible that survivors recalled two different pieces of (similar*) music as the final number?
In the instance of the sinking of the Titanic, survivors were touched by the music they heard, however clearly or faintly, performed by the band. How reliable were their memories and were they susceptible to alteration? Or could the memories of one person have influenced the memories of another?
A google search on the science of memory brings up an article called “How Our Brains Make Memories” featuring the work of Karim Nader, an expert on the malleability of memory.
A comparable event to the sinking of Titanic was the September 11, 2001 attack on the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. It was a tragedy that riveted the world’s attention and was covered extensively by the media. It was also an event that eyewitnesses were called on to describe in detail. Nader, himself, witnessed the twin towers burn and fall from a rooftop less than two miles away. Yet, he hesitates to trust his own memories of the event.
Here is an example of how his own memory fooled him: Nader was sure that on September 11 he had watched TV footage of the first plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center. It was part of what he definitely remembered experiencing that day. However, he was surprised to find out years later that that particular footage was first aired the day after, on September 12. A small error of memory, yet it demonstrated to him that his eyewitness experience of 9/11 had changed. And he wasn’t the only one who had mixed this memory in with the day of the tragedy.
Nader has developed a new theory on the life cycle of memory. He proposes that a memory is initially made and stored in the brain, but then each time it is opened up and talked about, it is then re-stored in the brain anew, as though remembered for the first time.
“Television and other media coverage reinforce the central facts. But recalling the experience to other people may allow distortions to creep in. “When you retell it, the memory becomes plastic, and whatever is present around you in the environment can interfere with the original content of the memory,” Hardt [a postdoctoral researcher in Nader’s lab] says. In the days following September 11, for example, people likely repeatedly rehashed their own personal stories—“where were you when you heard the news?”—in conversations with friends and family, perhaps allowing details of other people’s stories to mix with their own.”
This was precisely the scene on the Carpathia, the ship that carried Titanic’s survivors to New York, where survivors discussed the event together and tried to understand what had happened. Nader’s theory on memory would suggest that each time the survivors recalled and retold their stories to one another, their brains were at work recoding those memories, possibly with slight adjustments.
With events like the sinking of the Titanic, people retold their stories over and over within days, months, years and decades of the tragedy. How many times would their minds have been called upon to remember and re-store their memories? How many opportunities were there for their memories to encode slight changes? Without them even knowing it was happening?
My next several posts are going to turn to survivor memories of the sinking, with a special focus on the final piece played. Is it possible that Nader’s theory on memory could help explain variances and similarities in Titanic’s survivor accounts?
- Nader’s theory on How Our Brains Make Memories