Remembering my birthday

I am one of the few people who can remember the occasion of their birth. On November 23 1934, my granny received a telephone call. Following this she announced to me with great delight that I had been born at 4pm. You may doubt that, but I have a strong physical memory of the whole episode. I can even remember where I was sitting to receive this excellent news.

It may help if you had some further detail. My elder brother was also born on November 23, but in 1932. He had been taken to my granny’s house next door to celebrate his second birthday while my mother was in labour. Of course I was to be told about the famous telephone call many times, and it somehow converted into a visual memory in which I had swapped places with my brother.

We often say:”I saw it with my own eyes.” But it would be truer to have claimed that we saw it with our own mind. What we see, attend to or notice varies according to many different factors – from attitudes and expectations to what we have had for breakfast that morning. Why, I wonder, is the most invisible object in any room the screwdriver I put down two minutes ago?

But our ability to see and remember correctly is crucial to the legal process because so often it depends on witnesses. And Jewish law is very wise in insisting on at least two witnesses. Even that doesn’t guarantee true testimony, but it improves the odds.

A rather disturbing experiment illustrates the potential problems. In this study a number of witnesses, who believed they were watching a crime taking place, were asked to attend an identification line-up. A substantial majority of witnesses identified the criminal, although he or she was not actually present in the line-up. Subsequently when the witnesses were told that a particular person had confessed 60 per cent changed their identification to that person. Significantly, about a quarter of real-life convictions, subsequently overturned by DNA evidence, involve a false confession.

An important factor is that memory decay occurs rapidly shortly after the incident. To counter this, the University of Abertay, (Dr Fiona Gabbert et al), devised a self-administered questionnaire for witnesses to complete at an early stage. It produces more than a 40 per cent increase in forensically relevant and accurate information.

Perhaps the most frequently encountered danger point is when a witness is questioned by the police. Leading questions or other remarks made by the police can alter the memories of a witness. Ideally, although perhaps impractically, the most accurate testimony is that which has been written down before any discussion has taken place. And every time the mistaken evidence is repeated, either by the interrogator or the witness, it becomes more fixed in the memory. Similarly, discussion between witnesses can lead to false memories. There does not seem to be a good correlation between the confidence of witnesses and the accuracy of their testimony. This is important because the confidence of a witness, including confidence in a mistaken memory, is a powerfully persuasive factor.

Although witnesses remember dramatic events well, they can be unreliable on detail. For example, in the assassination of the Swedish politician Anna Lindh the witnesses present all agreed that the murderer was wearing military clothing, but video camera pictures showed that he was wearing sports clothes. It may be no coincidence that she had criticised the war in Iraq, and new settlements in Israel. Expectations and the sharing of stories among witnesses may have been active here.

There are of course experts in the field but it is surprising how few psychologists are aware of the basic pitfalls of witness testimony. If you have read this column with care you may already be ahead of the game.

When it was suggested to Gerald Butler QC that it might be in the interests of justice to introduce memory researchers as expert witnesses he poo-poohed the idea on the grounds that juries could be relied upon to use their common sense to judge the reliability of witnesses. Unfortunately, it is precisely common sense which has proved itself unreliable in this matter.

Anyone might be involved in a road  accident where measurement of blame depends on witness testimony. Most of these cases are decided on a balance of probabilities. But the evidence suggests that a judge or jury’s assessment of probability is likely to be faulty.

I will not easily forget a quarrelling married couple I was counselling some years ago. Even if the incident they wanted to discuss had occurred just that afternoon they would give me, quite sincerely, two quite different and inconsistent accounts. The capacity of emotion to distort perception is remarkable. Nor am I surprised that the synoptic gospels often give accounts which can conflict in their detail. I am surprised that they do not differ more. Perhaps people used their memories more accurately in those days.

It would be interesting to hear about people’s experiences of false memories. I can’t be the only one!

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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33 Responses to Remembering my birthday

  1. John Nolan says:

    There is, I believe, an old Russian saying, “he lies like an eyewitness”. And since we are all prone to “l’esprit de l’escalier”, it is easy to convince oneself that one said it at the time. This is why autobiographies are so unreliable. At least David Niven cheerfully admitted it, which is more than can be said for Robert Graves, whose ‘Goodbye To All That’ was described by Paul Fussell as a ‘fiction-memoir’.

  2. Trident says:

    I have to say I find this rather scary. That QC sounds a bit of a numskull. The last time I got a bash in a car I told the other driver that we had better give each other our accounts of what happened. So that was done immediately — and so I recovered all my claim. I am told that it’s important never to accept liability, but only to describe what happened.
    It does worry me a little that the gospel events, say, the feeding of the 5000, weren’t written down for years. And the fact that the apostles/disciples would have talked about these things leaves plenty of room for errors.
    by the way, is stJoseph on holiday? I miss him.

    • John Nolan says:

      In a less literate age, memory was more important.The whole corpus of Gregorian Chant was learnt by heart because although the words could be written, the melody could not.

  3. claret says:

    These things regarding memory are hard to judge. I do wonder if we are less concerned with accuracy, ( perhaps sub-consciously) because there are so many other ways of confirming matters. If we stay with the example of reasonably serious court cases we know that DNA evidence is virtually irrefutable. There are recordings of what people said. CCTV images can add weight to doubtful memories and on top of all that we readily accept a certain amount of human error.
    The point about the gospels is an interesting one. One can take some comfort from the fact that as memory was often the only means of ‘recording’ events that accuracy was of prime importance but there are still discrepancies that are not so easily explained The witness accounts to the first day of the resurrection being a prime example. ( And perhaps a worrying one.)

    • mike Horsnall says:

      In fact much of memory is fabrication. We all re-rehearse our lives daily and our dominant stories become biochemically engraved-testament to this is the power of song to call to mind past events,tastes and colours. Truth is that when it comes to human recall there are many possible ‘truths’ all arbitrated by the physical and psychological position of the viewer at any given moment…the stronger the input then the stronger the engraving..but then there is the interpretation and re interpretation of any event. I can remember all sorts of things about my very early childhood most of which I suspect did not occur in the manner I remember them.

      When it comes to the gospels there is little point in worrying -its all been done, dusted chewed and fought over by armies, linguists,archeologists, theologians and anybody else with a tuesday aftenoon to spare…as a former evangelical and having been tangentially involved with the translation of scriptures into Kazhak, I can testify to this.

      One of the many joys of catholicism is that it does not worry over much, at grassroots level it seems- about the minutiae of scripture-just seems to accept the good news as the truth carrying myth that it is (technical use of myth rather than populist I mean) For us alive today there is no ‘proof’ of the life, deity or the resurrection of Jesus whatsoever-we must take it on faith and by revelation. This can of course be seen as dangerous but is not neccessarily so. Thanks to the Mass and the work of the thousands of years that have gone toward the celebration of it we have another prop. Lex oranfdi lex credendi gives us our faith which we hold by mystery yet not blindly.

      • mike Horsnall says:

        PS Trident….St Joseph has left the blog, she seemed offended for some reason I couldnt comprehend,I miss her too.

  4. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Trident and Mike for your kind comments. So I feel it necessary to say the reason why I am no longer contributing to the secondsight blog.
    It seems that my comments on Natural Family Planning were not pertinent-when speaking about condom use.
    I feel that my comments were in line with the teaching of the Church as much as those who commented against it.

    I am not offended by this just disappointed. I thought this blog was about honesty and speaking ones mind without being offensive.
    If I am not able to do this then it is about time I left.
    I think being aware of ones fertility (not just for women) is an answer to a lot of the problems in the Catholic Church, it covers all sorts of questions that surround our sexuality.

    Why we have celibacy-not because our sexuality is sinful!
    If a person wants to stay celibate for the sake of their unity with the Lord, then do so.Isee the way forward as husband and wife being united with the Lord in Holy Matrimony and being one less way to condemn the church for Her teaching this being the reason why so many will not give into the Truth,the Church is not in error when She condemns contraception .There is so much confusion about our sexuality when none is necessary.The Priesthood would be a lot healthier if it was spoken of more often,we may not have had the scandle in the church if it was spoken of in these terms instead of hidden under a stone.I feel sad and ashamed of my sisters in the Church who give so little interest to their sexuality when Our Blessed Mother gave so much for us!
    I thank you all again for your past comments but do feel it is time for me to leave.
    .

    • Quentin says:

      I think I should make it clear that I am very much in favour of natural family planning, which is why no less than three columns have been devoted to it, either directly or indirectly. It is often pertinent, and indeed necessary, for contributors to make appropriate reference to it.

  5. st.joseph says:

    Quentin, perhaps you will tell me then why my contribution on Jeers or Cheers for the Vatican was inappropriate and not pertinent that you needed to remove it
    I respect what you said although dont agree with it ‘that anyone reading it on your blog should be put off the method by seeing it continually waved in their faces’.
    The problem as I see it where we ‘differ ‘and that is ‘that you taught it as a method and I taught it as a way of life in the Church’.So therefore it is my opinion it is always revelent.
    On that post I was discussing the way of life with Claret.
    And Cheers to the Vatican and not Jeers, which is continually ‘waved in our faces’!

    • mike Horsnall says:

      I’m not offended by having this method ‘continually waved in my face’…just curious to see what it is!!!

    • Quentin says:

      St Joseph, it is not my habit to comment on contributors here, but to write to them privately. I have done this in your case a number of days ago. Of course I am, as some contributors have expressed, hoping very much that you will return to making your stimulating contributions

  6. John Candido says:

    I would also like to add my support to Quentin’s. I hope that st.joseph will not leave Secondsight. Please do have a break by all means, but do return to posting your many thoughts on a variety of subjects. I will not pretend to agree with you as I do not agree with you on many issues. But that is beside the point of debate and discussion between people of widely differing viewpoints. It is the debate that matters above all else. Please reconsider your decision. John Candido.

  7. mike Horsnall says:

    So there you go St Jo…its unanimous!

  8. st.joseph says:

    To answer Mike’s comment first.
    Blessed Pope John Paul’s Theology of the Body will give an insight into the way of life in the Church helping you to understand our sexuality.
    It is a great pity that this is not taught in Catholic Schools instead of the sex education we have today.As I said it is not a method but a clearer understanding. As Confucius said,”If there is harmony in the home there is order in the nation and peace in the world
    Knowledge may grow, but wisdom does not necessarily follow. Despite the scientific advances and the improvement in levels of general education over the centuries,since the time of Confucius, it is reasonable to say that family life has seldom been so unstable as in our present day.
    We do have a duty as Catholics not forgetting all Christians to set the good example of this way of life, so that those outside the Church will look to family life within the Church,instead of looking elsewhere to criticize the Church .
    Thank you John,yes we do disagree a lot, but unless I am able to speak my mind and say what I believe to be true as in your case too ,then I will look in now and again but refrain from making comments which I consider as a part of the Living Church, that we all have a duty and a responsibility to share and protect the Truth that my Baptism and Confirmation entitles me to do
    Perhaps it would be good if a few more females contributed to this blog.

  9. claret says:

    I too would welcome the return of St. Joseph not least because of what i am able to learn from her contributions.
    However to get back to the point of memory and Gospels i quote from Mike Horsnall who writes: “One of the many joys of catholicism is that it does not worry over much, at grassroots level it seems- about the minutiae of scripture-”
    I am unsure why ‘grassroots level’ (whatever that means – another example of minutiae of language perhaps ,) would appear to hold more sway than the published level. The Catechism would cease to be such a valued publication without its constant references to the ‘minutiae of scripture.’
    I sometimes feel that the Church would like to dispense with certain aspects of such alleged minutiae but is , quite rightly, unable to do so.

  10. mike Horsnall says:

    Claret:
    Grassroots merely refers to the kind of conversations and encounters one enjoys in the school hall over coffee after church or on a lent course or whatever. At catechesis level even it seems to me that the emphasis is more on church teaching rather than scriptural wrangling. This may be partly a function of the very beauty and biblical rootedness of the Catechism I do not know. The catechism is a very good example of a faith where the ‘ heavy work’ of laying down the road surface has been to a degree already accomplished so we don’t all have to go round worrying about the composition of the tarmac quite as much….unless of course we fancy a different colour surfacing that is…
    Speaking from the perspective of an ex evangelical protestant type background one hears much less in Catholic circles of ‘technical’ discussion of the bible than one ever used to.-though I do from time to time come across a strong evangelical slant in Catholic teaching which is usually given be converts. I have to say I think this slightly lighter approach is probably a good thing though if this web site is anything to go by it seems that everyone goes round arguing about papal bulls instead! Though I do agree with your last sentence and personally follow the ordo daily readings I find it a great relief not to have to ‘believe’ in some particular slant or another of scripture nor to have to go around quoting bits of it to one another…sola scripture can be a surprisingly burdensome way of being a christian.

  11. johnbunting says:

    This may be a bit off-topic, but I find that Google ‘street-view’ provides a way of seeing how one’s memory of a place matches the present reality. In some cases of course it will have changed anyway. I recently looked up a beautiful place in north Wales where I had a camping holiday at the age of thirteen, in 1944. It looks very much as I remember it, except that there is now a camp-site, where we were just camping in an empty field.
    But how does memory relate to our belief in resurrection? If we believe in a conscious existence after death, and ‘the resurrection of the body’, then surely there must be some memory of our present life? If not, then what becomes of our individuality and continuity?
    William Blake, in one of his ‘Proverbs of Hell’, says “Eternity is in love with the productions of time”; which seems to me to tie in with “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21,5). I am sure we all have ideas of the best things in life which we would hope to find perfected in a life to come; like Rev. Sydney Smith, who said his idea of heaven was “Eating pate de foie gras to the sound of trumpets”.

    • Quentin says:

      John Bunting, I think your question is an exceedingly interesting one. By coincidence I have a column waiting in the stocks for a gap to get it in. it’s pertinent to the question of our continued identity in the next life. So I will be interested to see how people answer you.

  12. mike Horsnall says:

    Very good topic there. I’ve wondered about this quite a lot. You know the experience you get on a sunny beach sometimes when you can barely make out whats going on around you for the light and the sound of the waves and everything is the same yet suffused with the beauty of the day? I think our proximity to God will have the same effect. The apostle Paul says that we see ‘as through a glass darkly’ I think after the ressurection it will be ‘through a glass lightly’ in that yes we will be physically able to remember the past -but it wont be of that much interest compared to the present revealed reality which will be much more palpable than that which has gone before; CS Lewis makes good reading on this.

  13. mike Horsnall says:

    Further to the above. Human beings are fundamentally incarnate spirits possessing of souls-will and emotion which latter are biochemically rooted. I wonder how much of the structural aspect of memory-biochemistry etc will survive the transition and how much of the memory will be actually worthwile preserving?

  14. Iona says:

    I have hopes that on the Day of Judgement our memories of our lives will be clarified by seeing them (as far as possible) as God sees them, which will make perfect sense of them and at the same time “correct” them.
    It’s a while since I looked in on Second Sight, and I was quite alarmed to see St. Joseph apparently determined to stop posting. I’ve always read her contributions with interest. Please stay with us, St. Joseph, – and, as another female (and noting you think it’s a pity there aren’t more female contributors) I promise to follow more closely, and comment when I feel I’ve got anything relevant to say.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      Yes I like the idea of clarify and correct-both in Mercy and in judgemen t -one hopes for joy with a few brief tears mingled. Its true that there arent enough women posting.

    • Quentin says:

      Iona, you are quite right about female contributors. Most of the discussions we have need input from both sexes. I hope everyone can help here.

  15. John Nolan says:

    Mike Horsnall

    The problem with ‘sola scriptura’ as I see it is that it puts the Church at the service of the NT, whereas it should be the other way round; Our Lord established His church, and the apostles preached the gospel before anything was written down. Attempts to reconstruct the ‘historical’ Jesus founder because of lack of historical evidence. They tell us a lot about the author’s point of view, but precious little about the subject. The gospel writers were not in the business of writing history, although there are of course historical elements to the narrative, but they reveal a truth more profound than ‘historical’ truth (and history is after all only an interpretation of the past, not the past itself.)

    I am no exegete, but I am told St Augustine distinguished three kinds of meaning in Scripture; the literal, the allegorical and the anagogical. Regarding the last aspect, Laurence Hemming has written: ‘The authentic interpretation of Scripture in the Church does not come from within Scripture alone, but from the end to which the Church is destined, which is what she knows through the Apostolic tradition’.

  16. mike Horsnall says:

    Thanks for that. As it happens Newman- who I’ve just been reading- is of pretty much the same view.

  17. Iona says:

    Back to the question of female contributors: there used to be several, but most seem to have dropped out.

    Mike, I can try to imagine you in a dress, if that would help…

  18. John Nolan says:

    I suspect that women have better things to do than to parade their egos on the internet (although I’m told there are a few who can’t resist tweeting from the bath.)

  19. Iona says:

    John, surely you don’t regard your own comments as examples of “parading your ego”!

    • mike Horsnall says:

      I quite like the idea of ‘parading our ego’s” perhaps we should dress them in many brilliant colours and give them red slippers and hats to wear…they could even carry books to quote loudly from and thus we could lay claim to great office…..but we should refrain from forcing them to don necklaces or tights- because that would be taking things too far…!

    • John Nolan says:

      Of course they are! Just like an exchange over a few pints in the pub! “I am never wrong. On one occasion I thought I was, but it turned out later that I was mistaken.” I enjoy posing as he hammer of heretics, but I am fully conscious of the fact that unless you are a professional journalist, no-one is going to publish your opinions. I have been published, but they were serious historical articles in rather obscure periodicals. God bless, John.

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