This one, I’m afraid, is for the skeptics in the crowd. It deals with memory, how it is formed, how it is recalled, and what it means to those of us who conduct investigations of long-ago events. The problem is that most of what we believe about memory is about to be radically altered, and if we pay attention to the on-going research into memory, it can only lead to better information gathered about long-ago events.
First, let me say that I have known for a long time that memory is often hazy and sometimes radically altered in the mere process of remembering. In The Abduction Enigma we looked at the phenomenon of “flash bulb” memory, that is, those memories formed around some sort of important event. The old standby was “where were you when you learned the president had been assassinated?” The thought was that this sort of a memory was “burned” into the brain with greater intensity than the mundane memories of day-to-day life and would be recalled with much better accuracy.
But, according to Professor Ulric Neisser, who was at Emory University in January 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, this might not be true. He had a rare opportunity to study these flash bulb memories because of the Challenger disaster. The day after the spacecraft blew-up, he presented his first-year students with a short questionnaire that dealt with what they were doing, where they were, and what they remembered. Three years later he gave them the same questionnaire but asked one additional question. He wanted to know how accurate they thought their memories were.
According to the results published by Neisser and his graduate assistant Nicole Harsh, one quarter of the students didn’t have any accurate memories of the event. In one case a student said that he had been with his parents when he learned of the disaster, but the questionnaire revealed he had been at school at the time.
More important was the reaction of the students when confronted with the discrepancies. None disputed the accuracy of the written documents but one student, when shown the questionnaire said, “I still remember everything happening the way I told you. I can’t help it.” She was defending her memories that were clearly an invention of her own mind.
The other 75% of the students remembered some, most, or all of it accurately. Twenty-five percent remembered the disaster accurately, so we can see that not all those involved were wrong and some can accurately recall the “stored” events. It would be interesting to see how they remembered the events today, after so many years have passed but that research has not been attempted.
I say all this as introduction to a new study that suggests memory is even more flawed than Neisser and Harsh suggested. According to an online article in Wired (March 2012) by Jonah Lehrer entitled The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories, and available at:
memory erodes very quickly. Lehrer wrote:
Consider the study of flashbulb memories, extremely vivid, detailed recollections. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, a team of psychologists led by William Hirst and Elizabeth Phelps surveyed several hundred subjects about their memories of that awful day. The scientists then repeated the surveys, tracking how the stories steadily decayed. At one year out, 37 percent of the details had changed. By 2004 that number was approaching 50 percent. Some changes were innocuous—the stories got tighter and the narratives more coherent—but other adjustments involved a wholesale retrofit. Some people even altered where they were when the towers fell. Over and over, the act of repeating the narrative seemed to corrupt its content. The scientists aren’t sure about this mechanism, and they have yet to analyze the data from the entire 10-year survey. But Phelps expects it to reveal that many details will be make-believe. “What’s most troubling, of course, is that these people have no idea their memories have changed this much,” she says. “The strength of the emotion makes them convinced it’s all true, even when it’s clearly not.”
Lehrer noted that most of what we thought we knew about memory going back to the ancient Greeks is in error. Lehrer wrote, “Since the time of the ancient Greeks, people have imagined memories to be a stable form of information that persists reliably. The metaphors for this persistence have changed over time—Plato compared our recollections to impressions in a wax tablet, and the idea of a biological hard drive is popular today—but the basic model has not. Once a memory is formed, we assume that it will stay the same. This, in fact, is why we trust our recollections. They feel like indelible portraits of the past.”
But, according to the research, this is all untrue. In studying memory, and the way it is stored in the brain, it seems that the memory evolves as it is accessed. Each time someone remembers something, it can be subtly altered. New information might be included, old information edited out, and anything that a person has heard about an event can be incorporated in the memory.
An example of this Lydia Sleppy, the teletype operator (well, secretary at a New Mexico radio station KOAT in 1947) who was typing the story of the UFO crash as told to her by Johnny McBoyle. According to an article by Bobbi Ann Slate and Stan Friedman in the Winter 1974 issue of Saga’s UFO Report, “As the woman began typing out the fantastic news item over the teletype to their other two radio stations, a line appeared in the middle of her text, tapped in from somewhere, with the official order: ‘Do not continue this transmission!’”
In The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore, the statement was, “Attention Albuquerque: Do not transmit. Repeat do not transmit this message. Stop communication immediately.”
She told me, in a February 1993 interview, “I don’t know how much I had typed but I was typing what John [McBoyle] dictated when the signal came on that this was the FBI and we were to cease transmitting.”
In her signed affidavit of September 1993, she said, “This is the FBI. You will immediately cease all communication.”
While it can be seen here that she clearly added the FBI to her story, what we don’t know is how it was introduced. It could be it was something that she remembered, or it could be that someone, asking about that communication wondered if it might not have been the FBI, and she incorporated the FBI into her memory. Clearly the memory has changed from the time it was first told and reported in 1974, until she talked to me and signed the affidavit nearly twenty years later.
What all this new research says to me is that memories, no more than a year old can be badly flawed. Memories that are accessed time and again, as most of those for the various “Roswell” witnesses have been, could easily be altered as they come into contact with new information.
Jason Kellahin, who was a reporter in 1947, told me, that they had been alerted to the UFO crash story in the morning and drove to the Foster ranch. Brazel, his wife and young son were there. Brazel took Kellahin and Robin Adair, the photographer into the field.
There is nothing in the record, anywhere, to suggest that Brazel was in the field with a balloon to be photographed and when Kellahin was in that field, Brazel was already in Roswell, in the hands of the military. These facts can all be documented by various newspaper accounts and the testimony of nearly everyone else interviewed.
Nearly everything that Kellahin told me was wrong and I know this, not because he was reinforcing the balloon explanation, but because the facts, established through documentation from the time, prove that his story is untrue… but I should be clear on this, I didn’t say he was lying. He seemed to have believed everything he was saying, it was just contradicted by documentation.
And that is the key here. How do we determine what is an accurate picture of the events of July 1947 and what is a combination of confabulation (that is, an unconscious filling in of details of a story) and memory reconsolidation which is the way memory is recreated in the brain?
The answer is use the documentation available to corroborate the stories, use the testimony of others who were involved as a way of testing the veracity of a story, and cross check the information with what the witness has said before.
This new information, from Wired, is a cautionary tale for us. While we know that many of the witnesses were telling the truth, as they remember it, we must be aware that they might not remember it correctly. This complicates the task of putting together an accurate history of the Roswell case, but it also provides us with information that will be helpful in determining what the truth is.