How the Ability to Forget Memories Could Affect Testimony

A recent article titled “Memory and Law” describes the heavy reliance that the legal system places on memory function. The reliance on human memory is an important part of legal proceedings of almost every nature. And the article raises the concerning issue: “can we tell when someone is reporting an accurate memory?” A recent study by Malcolm McLeod, a memory researcher, focused on testing subjects to see if we can learn to forget our memories. His conclusion is that with the right kind of conditioning we are able to forget our memories, even if the facts remain the same in our minds, his study suggests we can alter the way we feel about those memories. If this memory trick is employed by people taking the stand, or describing a pattern of events in a negotiation, the ability to train oneself to forget certain events will cause even more uncertainty of truth. And the ability to forget one’s memories will make the fact finder’s job even harder if this technique becomes widely used. With the recent discoveries about how many different factors affect a person’s memory and the ability to teach oneself to forget memories, perhaps juries should be briefly instructed about the possible unreliability/subjectivity of the memories certain witnesses will recount. The ability to remember one’s past is usually a gift and the unfortunate fact that some will use the ability to alter their memories should be addressed in the legal system.

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