Canada has had its share of memories being introduced into legal cases with devastating results: Thomas Sophonow was accused of murdering a young waitress who worked in a doughnut shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Several eyewitnesses testified against Sophonow, but there were problems with each one. For example, the photo array shown to a number of witnesses contained a picture of Sophonow, which was significantly different than the photos of other men in the array.
Dubious allegations of repressed memories forced Michael Kliman, a teacher at James McKinney Elementary School in Richmond, British Columbia, to endure three trials before his ultimate acquittal. His world came crashing down when he was accused of molesting a Grade 6 student some 20 years earlier, a student who “recovered” her memories 17 years after the abuse allegedly happened. According to an article in the Vancouver Sun: “In 1992, after years of psychiatric treatment, she ‘recovered’ long-lost memories of a year-long series of assaults by Kliman and, encouraged by the Richmond RCMP, laid charges” (Brook, 1999, p. A19).
She was certain, but she was wrong
In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student in North Carolina. One night, a man broke into her apartment, put a knife to her throat, and raped her. According to her own account, Ms. Thompson studied her rapist throughout the incident with great determination to memorize his face.
She said: “I studied every single detail on the rapist’s face. I looked at his hairline; I looked for scars, for tattoos, for anything that would help me identify him. When and if I survived.”
Ms. Thompson went to the police that same day to create a sketch of her attacker, relying on what she believed was her detailed memory. Several days later, the police constructed a photographic lineup. Thompson identified Ronald Cotton as the rapist, and she later testified against him at trial. She was positive it was him, with no doubt in her mind.
She said: “I was sure. I knew it. I had picked the right guy, and he was going to go to jail. If there was the possibility of a death sentence, I wanted him to die. I wanted to flip the switch.”
As positive as she was, it turned out that Jennifer Thompson was wrong, but it was not until after Mr. Cotton had served 11 years in prison for a crime he did not commit that conclusive DNA evidence indicated that Bobby Poole was the actual rapist, and Cotton was released from jail. Jennifer Thompson’s memory had failed her, resulting in a substantial injustice. It took definitive DNA testing to shake her confidence, but she now knows that despite her confidence in her identification, it was wrong. Consumed by guilt, Thompson sought out Cotton when he was released from prison, and they have since become friends (Innocence Project, n.d.). Jennifer Thompson later wrote a book called Picking Cotton, which was a New York Times best seller in 2009.
Jennifer Thompson is not the only person to have been fooled by her memory of events. As of 2017, approximately 350 people have been released from U.S. prisons when DNA evidence confirmed that they could not have committed the crime for which they had been convicted, and in more than three-quarters of these cases, the cause of the innocent people being falsely convicted was erroneous eyewitness testimony (Albright, 2017).
The subject of this chapter is memory, defined as the ability to store and retrieve information over time. Our memories allow us to do relatively simple things, such as remembering where we parked our car or the name of the current prime minister of Canada, but also allow us to form complex memories, such as how to ride a bicycle or to write a computer program. Our memories have to function to allow us to make good decisions — it would be catastrophic if we could not deal with the present because we were constantly overwhelmed by memories of the past. Moreover, our memories define us as individuals — they are our experiences, our relationships, our successes, and our failures. Without our memories, we would not have a life.
At least for some things, our memory is very good (Bahrick, 2000). Once we learn a face, we can recognize that face many years later. We know the lyrics of many songs by heart, and we can give definitions for tens of thousands of words. David Mitchell (2006) contacted participants 17 years after they had been briefly exposed to some line drawings in a lab and found that they still could identify the images significantly better than participants who had never seen them.
For some people, memory is truly amazing. Consider, for instance, the case of Kim Peek (see Figure 10.1), who was the inspiration for the Academy Award-winning film Rain Man (1988). Although Peek’s IQ was only 87, significantly below the average of about 100, it is estimated that he memorized more than 10,000 books in his lifetime (Wisconsin Medical Society, n.d.; Kim Peek, 2004). In another case, the Russian psychologist Aleksandr Luria (2004) described the abilities of a man known as “S,” who seems to have unlimited memory. S remembers strings of hundreds of random letters for years at a time, and seems, in fact, to never forget anything. Highly superior autobiographic memory (HSAM) is the clinical term for a relatively newly-recognized condition, characterized by accurate autobiographical memory for every day of one’s life. This condition was “discovered” in 2000, and only about 60 people have so far have been recognized to possess HSAM. For interview accounts of what it’s like to live with HSAM, see Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s article “Total Recall: The People Who Never Forget” (2017). If you think you might be one of the rare individuals possessing HSAM, refer to “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory” by the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory (n.d.).
The following YouTube link provides a brief interview with Kim Peek to allow you to see some of his amazing memory abilities:
- Video: Kim Peek: Idiot Savant (“Rain Man”) (Brown, 2007)
In this chapter, we will see how psychologists use behavioural responses, such as memory tests and reaction times, to draw inferences about what and how people remember. We will see that although we have very good memories for some things, our memories are far from perfect (Schacter, 1996). The errors that we make are due to the fact that our memories are not simply recording devices that input, store, and retrieve the world around us. Rather, we actively process and interpret information as we remember and recollect it, and these cognitive processes influence what we remember and how we remember it. Because memories are constructed, not recorded, when we remember events, we don’t reproduce exact replicas of those events (Bartlett, 1932). For example, people who read the words “dream, sheets, rest, snore, blanket, tired, and bed” and then are asked to remember the words often think that they saw the word “sleep” even though that word was not in the list (Roediger & McDermott, 1995). We will also see that in other cases we are influenced by the ease with which we can retrieve information from memory or by the information that we are exposed to after we first learn something.
What is clear in the study of memory is that memory can be both fallible and amazingly accurate. The challenge for psychologists is to not only identify how and why memories are made and kept, but also how and when they fail to be stored, are remembered wrongly, or are recreated. One thing is for sure: our memories “feel” right to us, and it can be a difficult to accept that some of the things we remember never actually happened, or are not “our” memories, but instead those told to us by someone else. This chapter will challenge your autobiographical memories but also give you some insight into how to make your memory better.
Albright, T. (2017). Why eyewitnesses fail. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(30), 7758–7764.
Bahrick, H. P. (2000). Long-term maintenance of knowledge. In E. Tulving & F. I. M. Craik (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of memory (pp. 347–362). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Brook, P. (1999, December 15). Accused falls victim to a legal nightmare. Vancouver Sun, p. A19.
Brown, C. (2007, May 8). Kim Peek: Idiot savant (“Rain Man”) [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhcQG_KItZM
Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. (n.d.). Highly superior autobiographical memory. Retrieved from https://cnlm.uci.edu/hsam
Innocence Project. (n.d.). Ronald Cotton. Retrieved from http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/72.php
Kim Peek: Savant who was the inspiration for the film Rain Man. (2004, December 23). The Times. Retrieved from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article6965115.ece
Luria, A. R. (2004). The mind of a mnemonist: A little book about a vast memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mitchell, D. B. (2006). Nonconscious priming after 17 years: Invulnerable implicit memory? Psychological Science, 17(11), 925–929.
Rodriguez McRobbie, L. (2017, February 8). Total recall: The people who never forget. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/08/total-recall-the-people-who-never-forget
Roediger, H. L., & McDermott, K. B. (1995). Creating false memories: Remembering words not presented in lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21(4), 803–814.
Schacter, D. L. (1996). Searching for memory: The brain, the mind, and the past (1st ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Wisconsin Medical Society. (n.d.). Savant profiles: Kim Peek. Retrieved from http://www.wisconsinmedicalsociety.org/_SAVANT/_PROFILES/kim_peek/_media/video/expedition/video.html