Ginger Campbell: Don’t be so sure

Your memories of September 11, the Challenger spaceship explosion, and most landmark events in your life are drastically distorted.

The Challenger study demonstrates this. It was done by a scientist named Ulric Neisser, who was studying the kind of memories people have for highly dramatic events. Within a day of the Challenger explosion he interviewed 106 students and he had them write down exactly how they heard about it, where they were, what they were doing, and how they felt. Two and a half years later, he interviewed them again and he found that for 25% of them their second account was significantly different from their original journal entries. In fact, more than half the people had some degree of error and less than 10% gave all the details exactly the same as they had originally.

Before they saw their original journals, most of them were certain that their memories were absolutely correct. In fact many of them, when confronted with what they had originally written down, still had a high degree of confidence in their false recollections. In fact, there was one student who said, “That’s my handwriting but that’s not what happened.” And lest you think that this was an isolated incident, there have been plenty of other documented cases. 

To explore the research on memories of 9/11, see coverage in a New Scientist article and in a feature in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor.

Ginger Campbell, M.D. is the host of the Brain Science Podcast. The excerpt above is adapted from her latest book is Are You Sure? The Unconscious Origins of Certainty.