Ford Vox: Brian Williams' is being slammed for false Iraq claim, but false memories are not uncommon
He says studies show how easily memories can be accidentally modified based on circumstances, retelling and emotion
Editor’s Note: Dr. Ford Vox is a physician and journalist based in Atlanta. He is a contributing writer for Bloomberg View, focusing on medical practice, health care policy and medical science. He practices brain injury medicine at the Shepherd Center, a hospital dedicated to serious brain and spinal cord injury rehabilitation. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The NBC anchor issued an abject apology in his “Nightly News” program Wednesday, admitting he’d falsely claimed to have been in a Chinook helicopter shot down over Iraq 12 years go. He wrote on the NBC Nightly News Facebook page that he’d spent some time wondering if he’d “gone crazy,” but ultimately decided he’d conflated events in his memory.
Others aren’t so quick to agree with him. Critics are piling on and hoping to put the newsman’s essential credibility in question. That’s a currency without which he can’t do his job. Some are drawings comparisons to the reporting controversy that brought down the veteran CBS anchor Dan Rather. Like any good controversy, the affair has already launched a few social media hashtags, including #BrianWilliamsMisremembers, which pillories Williams by placing him at the center of world events in which he had no part.
While no one can rule out Williams and NBC set out in a craven and intentional attempt to misappropriate valor from a dramatic wartime scenario, or even a well-intentioned white lie (Williams was trying to honor an involved soldier during his most recent retelling), it’s also possible he’s suffered an all-too-natural memory error.
Doctors like myself who grapple with memory impairments in our patients won’t issue a diagnosis on the basis of a single memory lapse or false memory, no matter how major. Admittedly, this one was earthquake-generating, but the dramatic nature and outsized impact of this error don’t make it a sign of disease, not without more frequent spells or other symptoms.
We don’t call single false memories like this a disease because they’re in fact normal, right alongside your occasionally forgotten car keys, your missing wallet or even your misremembered conversation.
Brian Williams has experienced a very public symptom of life, and we should all forgive him for that. Let he who has never lost his keys cast the first tomato.
You may wonder how it’s possible that Williams tricked himself into such a vivid false memory told in such detail. He did experience some aspects of the events. Though he wasn’t in the Chinook that took a hit, he landed in that forward position with it. He formed bonds with the servicemen around him. He felt vulnerability and stress during that period.
Williams has told his story many times before, and each time he tells it, he is retrieving it. Errors happen during memory retrieval all the time, just as errors happen in cell division; biology isn’t computer science. Furthermore, he is subtly modifying his memory with his every retelling. Revisions occur as the memory is re-encoded based on what’s going on at the time he tells the story. Circumstances like a gabby, friendly free-wheeling interview with David Letterman.
The emotions he’s feeling when he’s retelling the story also infect the original memory. The NBC videos of the downed Chinook that he’s viewed repeatedly are dredged up as well.
Clever studies tell us just how powerfully words and images can manipulate memory to the point of inserting false memories. In one, researchers interviewed the parents of their experimental subjects, all college students, and collected true stories about events each of the studies had experienced.
After presenting these true stories mixed with false ones, researchers were able to trick 25% of the perfectly healthy students into thinking they had experienced one of the false stories just by having had them imagine any connections they might have to what they couldn’t remember. Brian Williams had plenty of connection to the downed helicopter.
In another study demonstrating the disturbing ease with which the human mind can create a false memory, researchers doctored a photograph to show adult subjects as children in a hot air balloon, and 50% of the adults ultimately believed they really took the balloon ride. Mr. Williams has been saturated in photos and video of the downed Chinook for many years now.
In the annals of famous false memories, this one has eclipsed Neil deGrasse Tyson’s notoriously erroneous stock line criticizing part of a George W. Bush speech that the former President never uttered.There’s no doubt Brian Williams has made a serious journalistic error for which he must atone. At the same time we should show him some sympathy for an embarrassing bug in the mental hardware all humans share.