It Did Not Happen That Way!

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

If you have ever been in a dispute or in a conflict with someone (and who hasn’t!), at some point, the "facts" of what allegedly happened are dissected. More often than not, there is disagreement about exactly what happened. It becomes a "he said, she said" argument in which credibility becomes more important than the "true" facts.

A recent study confirms that the way the disputing parties "remember" the facts may simply not be accurate. That is, each party may have a false memory of what happened, to the point of thinking that something happened when, in truth, it never occurred.

In a July 25, 2013 New York Times article entitled "Scientists Trace Memories of Things That Never Happened", James Gorman reports on a study by scientists at the Riken-M.I.T. Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in which false memories were created in mice:

Steve Ramirez, Xu Liu and other scientists, led by Susumu Tonegawa, reported…in the journal of Science that they caused mice to remember being shocked in one location, when in reality the electric shock was delivered in a completely different location. (Id.)

While the scientists acknowledge that mice are NOT people, the scientists point out that our memories stem from the same evolutionary background. Thus, the study is another in a long line of cautionary tales of how unreliable memory can be in humans. (Id.)

To make this finding, the scientists initially put the mice into one environment and allowed them to adjust to it. "They identified and chemically labeled the cells in the animals’ brains where that memory was being formed." (Id.) The mice were not shocked in this environment. Then, on the next day, they placed the mice in a completely different environment and delivered an electric shock "… at the same time that they stimulated the previously identified brain cells to trigger the earlier memory." (Id.) On the third day, they placed the mice back into the original environment and saw the mice "freeze in fear", a behavior indicating that the mice were remembering being shocked in that first environment, which, of course, did not happen. The scientists ran this experiment in different ways many times to confirm their initial results, finding them to be accurate. (Id.)

In real terms, both to the scientists conducting this study and to all of us as well, what this means is that our memories are simply not reliable "particularly in criminal cases when so much is at stake." (Id.)

The obvious moral is not to be so sure that you have remembered the "facts" correctly. As much as you may think otherwise, the dispute in which you find yourself could be comprised of "false" memories.

… Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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