One afternoon in February 2011, seven researchers at the University of California, Irvine sat around a long table facing Frank Healy, a bright-eyed 50-year-old visitor from South Jersey, taking turns quizzing him on his extraordinary memory.
Observing from outside of the circle, I tape-recorded the conversation as one researcher tossed out a date at random: December 17, 1999.
“Okay,” Healy replied, “Well, December 17, 1999, the jazz great, Grover Washington Jr., died while playing in a concert.”
“What did you eat that morning for breakfast?”
“Special K for breakfast. Liverwurst and cheese for lunch. And I remember the song ‘You've Got Personality’ was playing as on the radio as I pulled up for work,” said Healy, one of 50 confirmed people in the United States with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, an uncanny ability to remember dates and events. “I remember walking in to work, and one of the clients was singing a parody to Jingle Bells, ‘Oh, what fun it is to ride in a beat up Chevrolet.’”
These are the kinds of specific details that writers of memoir, history, and journalism yearn for when combing through memories to tell true stories. But such work has always come with the caveat that human memory is fallible. Now, scientists have an idea of just how unreliable it actually can be. New research released this week has found that even people with phenomenal memory are susceptible to having “false memories,” suggesting that “memory distortions are basic and widespread in humans, and it may be unlikely that anyone is immune,” according to the authors of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
UC Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning, where professor James McGaugh discovered the first person proved to have Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, is just a short walk from the building where I teach as part of the Literary Journalism Program, where students read some of the most notable nonfiction works of our time, including Hiroshima, In Cold Blood, and Seabiscuit, all of which rely on exhaustive documentation and probing of memories.
In another office nearby on campus, you can find Professor Elizabeth Loftus, who has spent decades researching how memories can become contaminated with people remembering—sometimes quite vividly and confidently—events that never happened. Loftus has found that memories can be planted in someone’s mind if they are exposed to misinformation after an event, or if they are asked suggestive questions about the past. One famous case was that of Gary Ramona, who sued his daughter’s therapist for allegedly planting false memories in her mind that Gary had raped her.
Loftus’s research has already rattled our justice system, which relies so heavily on eyewitness testimonies. Now, the findings showing that even seemingly impeccable memories are also susceptible to manipulation could have “important implications in the legal and clinical psychology fields where contamination of memory has had particularly important consequences,” the PNAS study authors wrote.
We who write and read nonfiction might find all of this unnerving as well. As our memories become more penetrable how much can we trust the stories that we have come to believe, however certainly, about our lives? The nonfiction list of New York Times bestsellers is heavy with reported narratives like Lauren Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and memoirs like Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, Elizabeth Smart’s My Story, and Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black. What becomes of the truth behind accounts of childhood hardships that propelled some to persevere? The merit behind meaningful moments that caused life pivots? The emotional experiences that shaped personalities and belief systems?
All memory, as McGaugh explained, is colored with bits of life experiences. When people recall, “they are reconstructing,” he said. “It doesn't mean it’s totally false. It means that they’re telling a story about themselves and they’re integrating things they really do remember in detail, with things that are generally true.”
The PNAS study, led by Lawrence Patihis, is the first in which people with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory have been tested for false memories. Such individuals can remember details of what happened from every day of their life since childhood, and when those details are verified with journals, video, or other documentation, they are correct 97 percent of the time.
Twenty people with such memory were shown slideshows featuring a man stealing a wallet from a woman while pretending to help her, and then a man breaking into a car with a credit card and stealing $1 bills and necklaces. Later, they read two narratives about those slideshows containing misinformation. When later asked about the events, the superior memory subjects indicated the erroneous facts as truth at about the same rate as people with normal memory.
In another test, subjects were told there was news footage of the plane crash of United 93 in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, even though no actual footage exists. When asked whether they remembered having seen the footage before, 20 percent of subjects with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory indicated they had, compared to 29 percent of people with regular memory.
“Even though this study is about people with superior memory, this study should really make people stop and think about their own memory,” Patihis said. “Gone are the days when people thought that [only] maybe 20, 30 or 40 percent of people are vulnerable to memory distortions.”
Loftus, who has been able to successfully convince ordinary people that they were lost in a mall in their childhood, pointed out that false memory recollections also occur among high profile people. Hillary Clinton once famously claimed that she had come under sniper fire during a trip to Bosnia in 1996. “So I made a mistake,” Clinton said later about the false memory. “That happens. It proves I'm human, which, you know, for some people, is a revelation.”
“It’s so powerful when somebody tells you something and they have a lot of detail,” Loftus said. “Especially when they express emotion. To just say, ‘Oh my god it must be true.’ But all those characteristics are also true of false memories, particularly the heavily rehearsed ones that you ruminate over. They can be very detailed. You can be confident. You can be emotional. So you need independent corroboration.”
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When I interviewed Frank Healy this month about what he remembered about his visit two years and nine months earlier to UC Irvine, he got a lot right, but not everything.
He remembered that Wednesday, February 9, 2011, was a meaningful day for him. He felt excited about being a subject in the superior memory study on the UC Irvine campus. Since childhood, he had been fascinated with television schedules, train and bus schedules, the weather, and news events. He made mental notes, which he would remember decades later like, “Today is March 16th, it’s sunny and unusually warm for March, and dad’s playing a Clancy Brothers album because tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day.” But he didn't always know how to use his memory for something worthwhile.
Sometimes his memory was more of nuisance than a gift. His mind would be filled with so many details at once that he’d miss lessons in class, or his parents would get mad that he wasn't listening to them. Healy didn't reveal his unique skill to his peers until 8th grade, when he decided to showcase his memory for a talent show. On June 6, 1974, a Thursday, as Healy remembered, kids spent the entire day coming up and asking him about birthdays and other dates. The social studies teacher even left the classroom to tell the principal about Healy’s astounding recall.
As Healy got older, he realized that painful events that happened 20 or 30 years ago would come back to him with the same emotional intensity, as if he were reliving those moments again, like when he pledged a fraternity in college but did not get in because he was heavyset and shy. Or when he was let go from his first job out of college after just two months. But he learned to live with the negative memories and put a positive spin on them. He went on to work as a counselor helping others do the same, even writing books on his experiences of living with phenomenal memory.