Titanic, 9/11 and the Science of Memory

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?

Related Posts


6 thoughts on “Titanic, 9/11 and the Science of Memory

  1. Interesting observations. I can even tell, that sometimes I am thinking to myself: “did this happened yesterday, or maybe I was dreaming about this when I was sleeping at night?”, or “if this happened today, or yesterday?”. Even there sometimes are some events in my mind, which I remember but simply can’t find a one reason for rememberging such thing, because it seems to me that my brain is lieing to me. Human’s memory is very tricky thing.Also, I have a question about something not associated with Titanic last song matter. I am thinking about buying one Titanic music album, but I want to verify how many songs on the album were absent in White Star Line Music brochure. I would be very glad if you could tell if such pieces were listed there?:1. Bon Voyage march by A. Ganter; 2. A Perfect Day by Jacobs-Bond; 3. I Want A Girl Just Like The Girl That Married Dear Old Dad by von Tilzer; 4. Berliner Luft march by Lincke; 5. Ciribiribin by A. Pestalozza; 6. Im Chambre Separee intermezzo from Opernball by Heuberger; 7. Liebesleid by Kreilser; 8. Rendez-Vous intermezzo by W. Aletter; 9. Maple Leaf Rag by Joplin; 10. Turkey Trot by Moret; 11. Fascination by Marchetti; 12. Let Me Call You Sweetheart by Leo Friedman; 13. Petite Tonkinoise by V. Scotto; 14. Autumn Song by Tchaikovsky; 15. Barcarolle by Josef SukI would be very grateful to you!Also, I hope to see some new notes on your blog, but not about the last song consideration. It is getting boring… I am waiting! Greetings!


  2. But still about the last song problem there is one more thing. Wallace Hartley was to say that if he would be on sinking ship, he would play \”Nearer my God to Thee\” or \”Our God, help in ages past\”. It is difficult not to believe that 'Nearer' was played, when Hartley is saying such thing…


  3. I do believe Wallace Hartley loved Nearer, My God, To Thee. I believe he had it memorized. I believe he told his friend, Ellwand Moody, he would play it if he were on a sinking ship. Did Moody see the ship sink or hear the band's last number? No. While it is a very interesting story, it only attests to the fact that Hartley loved they hymn and what he thought he would do on a sinking ship. It doesn't give any proof of how he acted the night Titanic sank.Memory is a tricky thing – based on Nader's theory, Moody could have been influenced by newspaper reports on Titanic's sinking, Hartley, and the hymn, when he recalled that story to the press. While it would be impossible to prove such a thing, and therefore I feel it is better to simply believe his friend was recalling a true memory, there is a remote possibility that Moody's memory of his conversation with Hartley was infused with the information that was prevalent in the press at the time, and that it changed his memory.


  4. I'm responding to the pieces you asked me about, and I can only answer based on the replica songbook I have. These are the numbers I was able to locate with a quick scan of titles. Hoping I don't miss any….Berliner Luft/LinkeNo JoplinSeveral by Moret, not that one. Several by Tchaikovsky, not that one. Barcarolle by Fetras, Barcarolle by Offenbach, none by SukThe other numbers I cannot see in a quick glance, and they don't look familiar to me from any of my looks through the book. It has been assumed for a long time that Titanic's band took requests off the list, so several Titanic music albums have simply recorded music that was around in 1912. I am skeptical about this idea – bands would have learned how to improvise a bit through the jazz era, but as jazz was so new in 1912, I support the belief that the bandsmen played entirely from arranged sheets, and stuck to the list. If someone had a request for a solo, that was another matter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.