The explanation by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams that he "misremembered" being aboard a helicopter shot down in Iraq in 2003 is probably "spot on," says a Baylor University memory reconstruction expert.
Viewers and others may be doubting Williams' credibility after he recanted his claim and apologized, saying his "fog of memory of 12 years" may have made him "conflate" the memories of two planes -- the helicopter that was shot down and the Chinook behind it that Williams was in.
Williams "did what all of us do — you get your story together and that’s your story,” said Charles Weaver, Ph.D., chair and professor of Baylor University’s department of psychology and neuroscience, who has conducted studies on memory.
“Many people heard about this and say, 'This would never happen to me.' But it happens to us all the time — we just don’t have written records of it.”
Williams, quoted in Stars and Stripes, said that "I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.” He said that “I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”
Weaver has done studies on what he calls “flashbulb memory” — the false notion that details of a traumatic experience are accurately seared into our memories. In fact, our memories are somewhat like an edited videotape, and we continually edit and splice, sometimes with a little outside assistance.
An example of memory reconstruction that Weaver cites is the recall of many about 9-11.
In one study, Weaver and another researcher asked hundreds of college students to recall what they saw and felt on the day of the terrorist attacks. More than 70 percent remembered seeing footage of the first plane striking the World Trade Center. Many recalled feeling rage toward Osama bin Laden. In fact, neither the footage of the first plane nor hints of al Qaeda's involvement became available until the day after the attacks, Weaver said.