Memory, not a word for the witness

brain illustration
Illustration from ScienceNews.org, from Feb. 3 article about the search for the physical location of memories in the brain.

A class discussion about the validity of eyewitness accounts grew into a wider discussion about how memory is unreliable, not just in a trial situation but in regular life. Mock Trial students are learning how a trial works and preparing for an April 23 full mock trial. On Friday they took a closer look at the value of eyewitnesses. A Ted Talk spurred the discussion–a forensics expert told the story about a 17-year-old who was sent to prison for a drive-by murder. The expert showed how witnesses — who were sure they could identify the teen — actually could not see the face of the shooter. The gunman was inside a darkened car, on a moonless night, with only distant street lights and back lighting. The car was driving down the street, while the victim was standing on the sidewalk. No weapon was recovered, and the car was not identified.  “The brain abhors a vacuum,” the expert told the Ted audience. Witnesses will fill in the gaps in their memory and convince themselves that what they believe is true. In class discussion, the students examined why eyewitness testimony is so powerful, even when shown to be shaky in its truthfulness. We like stories, it’s more interesting than charts or objects from other evidence, students suggested. Some students talked about the psychology of memory, even going so far as to suggest that testing is not a valid measure of knowledge, given the unreliability of memory. People misremember all the time, students suggested.  It will be interesting to see how the students perform in the mock trial testify in April– will they remember all they learned?

Advertisements