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Eve Ash
  • Eve Ash
  • South Melbourne
  • Australia

CEO - Founder, Seven Dimensions

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What happens to people's memory in stressful/traumatic situations? What's the evidence for false memories, and changing reports of facts?

What happens to people's memory in stressful and traumatic situations, and is it truly possible for someone to have false memories? When something terrible happens in a person's life, or a crime is committed, witnesses often have difficulty remembering, yet some are adamant about their memories which turn out to be wrong. I am particularly interested in relation to how this impacts legal cases, where innocent people have ended up in prison as a result of their own memory issues or those of witnesses. What physiological evidence is there? And how does a polygraph help or not help in studying this?

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    Apr 4 2011: Eve, you don't even need traumatic situations for that.
    Do you know about the famous gorilla experiment, explained in detail in the book "the invisible gorilla" by Christopher Chabris. This book can give you a lot of insight into your question how traumatic or non-traumatic situations can influence our recollection and perception.
  • Apr 4 2011: At Harvard Business School, one of our profs divided the class into two and told one side to close their eyes. He then projected on the screen for about 15 seconds a black-and-white outline image of an attractive your lady's head and shoulders. He shut off the projector, told the first group to open their eyes and the second group to close theirs, and then he projected onto the screen a similar black-and-white outline image of an old hag. He then turned that off, told everybody to open their eyes, and he projected one of those black-and-white outline images that can be interpreted two different ways. He asked for silence for 15 seconds, then switched off the projector. "What did you see?" he asked. Naturally the first group all saw an attractive girl and the second group all saw an old crone. No surprise so far. But then he asked us to reconcile our differing interpretations of the same thing, so everybody accused him of prejudicing the outcome by conditioning us to interpret the picture a certain way. "Guilty", he conceded. "But isn't that just what happens in real life?" So then someone asked him to show the picture again. He refused. "You can't turn the clock back in real life," he said. It was an interesting debate that followed.

    It was an excellent demonstration that has helped me many times since to reconcile how two intelligent people can interpret exactly the same thing in diametrically opposite ways. It reminds me of the silly joke of the judge who summed up by saying "So what we have here is a collision between two stationary vehicles, each parked on its own side of the road."
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    Apr 3 2011: Everything you might wish to know on this topic is available by a literature search. If you start with Elizabeth Loftus, then go to the reference section of one of her major articles all of the other important names will pop up. She has written for years especially on legal topics that you are interested in. You have asked a very wide ranging and complicated question. I hope this lead will be of assistance.