The science behind Brian Williams' misremembering


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This image immediately entered my brain as I read that.


This is not news for any one that’s been married or lived together for years.

“No, dear…that was in Miami the time you got food poisoning. it was Orlando was when we had the flat”


More like “The science behind understanding Brian William’s misremembering”, since I doubt Williams was using a scientific process to get these results. But calling it a “misremembering” assumes a 1:1 correspondence between events and memory which has never really existed. People remember their impressions, not the events around them.

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If he mismurr…membered something, at least it wasn’t if there were weapons of mass destruction or not or where the bodies were buried. Nothing good on the tele anway. He was a heck of a lot better, to watch the news with, than Couric Jeraldo or Lauer for that matter.


I glad to see someone talking about this. Our brains store facts that we’ve learned in a different way than things we’ve experienced. When we repeat learned facts, they get strengthened in our memory. But when we recount the memories of an experience, that memory gets slightly corrupted. It’s like it gets spooled out on a tape recorder, and then the retelling gets put back in our brains, overwriting the original memory. And the memory corruption is influenced by the reaction of anyone in the presence of the teller. The parts that get an emotional reaction, such as “the helicopter get hit with an RPG”, or Hillary Clinton’s “sniper fire” take on added importance, and a new memory gets written to the brain.

I first heard about this phenomenon from an episode of Fresh Air several years ago. The guest was neuroscientist Dean Buonomano. He said, in part:

This should be seen as a consequence of the fact that memory is written down as we experience it. It’s being continuously updated. And the synapses that undergo changes in strength - so as you alluded to earlier, one of the ways the brain writes does information is by making new synapses, making new connections or strengthening new ones or weakening old ones.

And that process uses these synapses that get strengthened, but the retrieval also uses those same synapses. So that can strengthen that pathway.

And this can be very useful, for example, if every time you see your cousin, and from - in six months intervals, he will look a bit different. You don’t have a perfect memory of him five years and then four years ago and then three years ago. Your memory of him is always being updated every time you see him. It’s being adjusted. It’s being fine-tuned. So that’s a very valuable characteristic of human memory because we update the dynamic images that we see in the world.

You can read the entire transcript here.

Personally, for much of my life, I would have sworn to you that when President Kennedy was shot, the teacher made an announcement in my 1st grade class, and everyone was sent home. I wasn’t until I eventually did the math, and realized that I wasn’t yet in school at that time. My school memory of Kennedy came from later discussing Bobby Kennedy in elementary school, and conflating that with my brother’s experience of being sent home when the President was shot.

We all have memories that we would swear are accurate, but are wholly or partially wrong.


I was just relating a story to my niece about a visit I made to Santa Barbara years ago. I told her I stayed in a house that was built in to the side of a mountain, and that I woke up in that wonderful place and drank the best cup of coffee I’d ever had while looking out over endless, misty hills. As God is my witness, that’s how it’s been in my memory for decades. It was a scaled-down version of Rivendell.

My sister happened to be listening in and started laughing. She and I had visited Santa Barbara together on that trip. She claimed the place we stayed was a fairly shoddy house that smelled vaguely of urine. But the scenery, she conceded, was amazing. Memory is a funny thing.

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Here’s the science on it: Brian Williams lied about it to enhance his career and aquire cred. NBC knew all along the story was bogus but they had a war to sell to the American public and just went with it. Apparently Mr. Williams has lied about a number of other things as reports continue to surface.

This is great. I only heard about Brian Williams yesterday, and I immediately thought of ‘You Are Not So Smart’, and how this was quite likely an example of actual misremembering.

Podcast cued for tomorrows bike ride…

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Well, that about wraps it up for science!


That’s the point, and if its something you are interested in, listen to McRaney’s podcast.

I could have done without that mental image.


A while ago I remembered that I had received a photo radar speeding ticket in the mail. I searched for it in a panic, since the fine is double if you don’t pay it in time.

Eventually I realised I was remembering a dream/nightmare. What tipped me off was that I remembered it was for $40 - they don’t come that cheap.



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too funny

Except that if he knew it wasn’t true… why would he assume he’d get away with it? That’s an awfully risky gamble from a public figure who is himself a journalist. I mean, we’re not talking about lying about something where no one was there. He knew people were there and he knew there were probably even records. It’s just a super weird thing to do. He may have lied, but it seems equally likely he just completely misremembered. This is doubly so because during the invasion, he reported the event accurately.

I was a kid during the First Gulf War (Second, depending on how you count them), and until I was fifteen I had a vivid memory that my parents and I were buzzed by fighter jets as we were on the tarmac, getting on the plane to evacuate Kuwait. I remembered everything about that vividly, down to the wind in my hair. Except that we were never on the tarmac. We got on the plane via a gangway at the airport. It was only when I brought it up with my parents that I realized I had confabulated the whole event.

In warzones, things that would be unthinkable and extremely memorable become at very least plausible. It wasn’t implausible that Williams would have been shot at, since one of the helicopters he was with, was in fact shot at.


I’m not sure I can buy that he told one story years ago, and then another story more recently, on purpose. For a person on the public record, that’s bound to get caught (and was). Seems to me that if he intended to deceive, he would have done so from the beginning. This seems more like self-deception than a deliberate lie, as the article says.


As Feynmann said once, we are the easiest people to fool; meaning that we fool ourselves most easily.


Not looking so good for Mr Williams now…

There’s a psychologist named Elizabeth Loftus who has done a heck of a lot of work regarding memory, and specifically eye witness testimony. Shes probably with looking into if your interested in this subject matter.

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