Is that how it really happened?... Fact, Fiction or a bit of both?

The human brain is a truly amazing organ, a magnificent toolbox of skills, and a beautiful piece of evolutionary wonder. But it’s also a complete pain in the bum sometimes! So what can we learn about our brain to help make our lives that little bit happier, easier and clearer?

”Number 5, they picked you!”

When I was around 17 years old, and still studying at school, my friends and I would often be on the lookout for ways to make a bit of extra cash to spend on cider and cigarre….. I mean….. science books and stuff!

Anyway. Outside the local police station each week they would post a list of all of the police line-ups they had planned, along with a description of the suspect. So, if they were looking for men who were 6’3” / medium build / short blonde hair, and you happened to meet that description, you could go along and get paid £20 or so to stand in the line-up alongside the suspected criminal and then witnesses would come in and stand the other side of the one-way glass and try to identify the person that they saw commit said crime. Simple right? You’d think so.

Now, as you can imagine, you’re not going to find 6 guys that all look identical, and even less likely to get them all in the same line-up on the same day. So, let’s be nice and say there were some fairly ‘relaxed’ rules about who they let in to the line-ups. If you were even in the same ballpark - “in you come fella”. One particular day, they were a bit short of volunteers for a burglary line-up and I was allowed in with a group of other guys who kind of met the description. The suspect was brought into the line-up room and we waited patiently for the witnesses. Bear in mind that we can see or hear nothing in this room, just one way glass and bright lights.

After about 20 very boring minutes, a rather rotund police officer came in laughing his head off. “Number 5, they picked you!” Everyone turns to look at this young lad who was brought in wearing handcuffs.

But he has number 3 above his head……

They then turn to look at me.

I spin around and sure enough, number 5 is pinned on the wall above my head!

The sheer panic that set in at this point was unbelievable….. Heart is beating like a drum…… Mouth goes all dry………. “I’m too young to go to jail for the rest of my life, how has this happened? I bet I don’t even get the £20 AND I have to go to jail now!? This sucks” - my internal dialogue is going crazy. I turned to the police officer and mumbled something along the lines of “I swear I wasn’t even there!” but with the dry mouth it came out more like “ussh heeerrrr uhhh asnt eeeen uhhhh”. I think that the pale complexion, clammy skin and look of utter terror on my face was enough to convey the message.

A very sweet smile and a few words later and it was all over. “Don’t worry buddy, it happens all the time. You’re free to go.”

Your brain is not a hard drive or a video camera. Not even close.

So, it turns out that these witnesses, despite being ‘absolutely positive’ that it was number 5, were so far off the mark that it was actually comical. I looked almost nothing like the actual suspect for starters. I was simply a kid off the street that was essentially a paid actor, yet these people were convinced that the man they saw burgling the house that day was me. And this is not unusual, this happens all them time. So much so that eyewitness testimonies in a court room are often highly unreliable and can very easily fall apart under questioning.

So why is this the case? Why are people so convinced that the things that we see and hear are just stored as pieces of objective, factual information by our brains and then just recalled vividly at a seconds notice, exactly as they happened?

The information that comes into our body through our senses: Our Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Olfactory & Gustatory systems is then processed and stored depending on many complex factors. Implicit information such as sensory information for the development of motor skills are processed by the Basal Ganglia and Cerebellum. Explicit memories such as events, general facts and information are processed and stored by the Neocortex, Hippocampus and Amygdala. And it’s our little friend the Amygdala which can really cause some mischief when it comes to how this information is stored. You see, the Amygdala attaches emotional significance to this information before it is stored and is responsible for the autonomic responses in the management of fear, arousal, shame, joy, grief or any emotional stimulation. Although this can be incredibly useful sometimes when it comes to keeping us from harm or danger, it’s not so useful in other areas of life in the world we live in today and this crucial information can be altered dependent on our personal and cultural beliefs, values and norms, as well as any relevance to past events, trauma, fears or phobias before that information is stored. This has an incredibly powerful impact on how accurate that memory really is.

On recollection of that piece of information or memory, it is also vulnerable. Each time that memory is evoked it can be changed, edited, trimmed and interlaced with other pieces of information before being stored again. As such, it can end up much like a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ at school, and the memory can end up becoming hugely different from the original information that was stored as time goes on.

Your mood, your physiological state of arousal, your beliefs and values, your cultural background, your personal history and even your quality of sleep can have a dramatic effect on the accuracy and quality of your memory recall. So before you go ‘swearing on your life’ that your partner said or did x, y or z the last time you had a big bust-up, or betting any cold hard cash on the basis that you are ‘absolutely positive’ that your side of the story is the right one….. the reality is that if there was any emotional significance to the event, you’re both probably wrong! So just zip it and have a hug instead.

Wishing a very Merry Christmas to each and every one of you.

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Ed Smith