As the official enemy of the United States, the lamestream, mainstream media has been crucifying our esteemed attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for his inability to recall his meeting — or actually meetings, now that his memory has been jogged — with representatives of the Russian government while he was serving as an adviser to the Trump presidential campaign.
Let me here diverge from the pack of media hyenas and cut Jeff Sessions a break. I believe he may have been totally honest in saying he was not able to recall that meeting, or those meetings — whatever.
The publication of Michael Lemonick’s new book, “The Perpetual Now: A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love,” brings to mind memory — how it works and how it sometimes does not work. The book, as you may (or may not) recall from last week’s column in this space, recounts the story of Princeton artist Lonni Sue Johnson, who was struck by viral encephalitis in 2007 at the age of 57, leaving her with virtually no memory. With the help of family and friends, she relearned how to walk, talk, and even eat unaided. Eventually — and much to the amazement of her family and friends — she also began drawing again and playing the viola again. Her brain began firing on some cylinders but either misfiring or not firing at all on others. Now, as Lemonick reports, Lonni Sue’s brain is the subject of great curiosity and experimentation on the part of scientists at Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere.
In telling Lonni Sue’s story, Lemonick also presents the broad outlines of neuroscience and memory research. One of the chapters I found most interesting was “False Memory.”
My interest is based on one of my lessons in life, which states that “our memory is never as good as we think it is.” The key part of that lesson is the end: “as we think it is.” All of us are subject to lapses in memory. But when the high school classmate recalls that winning play in the big game, chances are we remember it more clearly, or so we think.
In his book Lemonick recites his vivid memories of where he was and how he reacted on November 22, 1963. Some pieces of those memories, he later discovered, were incorrect.
I have unearthed several falsehoods from my own memory bank. A decade ago or so I wrote a column about the best summer job I ever had. I had a vivid memory of being dispatched in 1967 to the Binghamton Press’s bureau in Oneonta, New York, and later hanging out with the vacationing bureau chief at his cottage on the Susquehanna River several miles out of town. After a day of two-fisted drinking, the bureau chief was concerned about my ability to drive back to town. So he called the Oneonta Police Department, explained the situation, and arranged for two police cars to be waiting for me on the main highway. The police in turn instructed me to drive between them in a mini-convoy that led back to my motel.
The story speaks volumes about the state of drunk driving laws at the time, and the routine deals often struck between the media and public officials in those less complicated (but not necessarily safer) days. As I recalled the episode in 2005, it was also important to me because it helped to explain a certain cockiness on my part, which led to a great prank being played on me at the end of the summer.
Just one problem, which I realized long after putting the story in print: It could not have happened in the summer of 1967. It did happen in the summer of either 1973 or 1974, when I was a freelance writer, passing through town and re-connecting with my old friend in Oneonta. In 1967, obviously, something else led up to my youthful swagger.
Neuroscientists have a term for the alteration of autobiographical memories as they are brought back into our consciousness: “reconsolidation.” But the updating process is not always perfect, as Lemonick writes. “It means that eyewitness testimony to crimes isn’t necessarily as solidly reliable as we assume, especially since trials happen months, or even years, after a crime is committed.”
Lemonick cites the work of Elizabeth Loftus, an experimental psychologist at the University of California, Irvine. “She’s made a career of debunking the idea that memory is necessarily a reliable guide to what happened in the past.” Unlike a tape recorder, memory “doesn’t faithfully transcribe what happened for later playback. Even the most vivid of autobiographical memories are constructed of bits and pieces — sights, sounds, sensations, emotions — many or most of which might be accurate on their own, but which can be contaminated and distorted by what’s in our minds when we recall them.”
Loftus discovered that people could even come to believe as true false memories that had been implanted in their minds by the clever prompting of questioners.
Some of Loftus’s examples include fairly young and impressionable children. Lemonick quotes another psychologist, Julia Shaw from the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom, who has shown that false memories can be created around events that occur (or would have occurred) later in life. Shaw and her colleagues were able to convince college students that they had committed a crime, even when they had never even had a run-in with the police. Of the students tested, about 70 percent “came to remember, utterly falsely, that they had committed crimes.”
These tricks that our brains play on us can lead to embarrassing moments, inaccurate reporting, or false eyewitness testimony.
But when we collectively misremember or create false memories out of whole cloth that’s another matter. My friend Landon Jones, the former managing editor of People magazine who introduced me to the idea that our memories are not as good as we think they are, has written an essay on our collective memory for the online edition of Time.
The polarizing 2016 national election and the ensuing political battles, Jones posits, have caused both liberals and conservatives to lose “the shared pool of assumptions and repeated stories that keep even diverse societies together. This is our collective memory, our national narrative, the mechanism by which we pass along our values and goals of our democracy to future generations. In short, it is the agreement about the past that we need to have in order to function as a cohesive society.”
As Jones writes in his February 14 column (available at www.time.com): “the problem is that collective memory matters. We may be through with the past, as the saying goes, but the past is not through with us. Veterans still struggle with the Vietnam War because we as a nation have not agreed upon what it meant
. . . Our collective memory of the rise of fascism or of the eradication of Native Americans or of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is the delicate defense that prevents them from happening again.”
So what about Jeff Sessions and his memory, or lack thereof? Several commentators have raised their eyebrows at the fact that he recalled in great detail certain discussions he has had with Russian officials, but could not recall anything about any conversations that might have involved Donald Trump.
In considering Sessions’ position, I turn to the timely book by Michael Lemonick. In it he describes statistical learning, “a process by which we unconsciously pick up an understanding of the world by detecting patterns and regularities in our environment.” Could it be that the Trump-Russia connection was so ingrained in the presidential campaign that a guy like Sessions became oblivious to that reality?
It’s a reach, I will admit. But there is one other reason to cut Sessions a break. Whether he is lying or just having a “senior moment” about his contact with the Russians, the far more important question concerns the ongoing nature of the Trump-Russian connection. Recalling our past is important, but so is understanding the present.