Neuroscience Suggests that Brian Williams May In Fact Be “Misremembering”

Brian Williams is the center of a journalistic controversy right now—but it’s possible that he may have neuroscience on his side.

Over a week ago, the popular and respected NBC anchor broadcast a segment about his attendance at a particular New York Rangers game that was paying tribute to a retiring command sergeant major. During the invasion of Iraq, Williams claimed, he was reporting on-scene when the NBC news team’s helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelling grenade. A platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry, he said, rescued Williams and his colleagues; the retiring sergeant at the Rangers game was presumably a member of that platoon. But soldiers posting on NBC’s Facebook page say they were there that day in 2003—and that the shot down Chinook was theirs, not Williams’s.

Brian Williams is at the center of a journalistic controversy, but neuroscience might be able to come to his defense.

Williams apologized and withdrew indefinitely from NBC’s “Nightly News” broadcast, saying that he conflated the events in his memory. Members of the public are now asking why he lied about the circumstances of the incident and whether or not they can trust any of Williams’s previous on-site reporting.

But the reality of Williams’s mistake won’t be uncovered unless we start from the beginning. Here’s David Carr, writing for The New York Times:

It’s useful to note that Mr. Williams initially reported the story fundamentally as it had happened—although the soldiers on hand say he exaggerated the danger to himself even then—and over time, as he retold it, he moved into the middle of it, so that the story became something that happened to him. All those 1 percent enhancements along the way add up and can leave the teller a long way from the truth.

The New York Times produced a video showing how Williams’ story changed over the years. It’s like witnessing a solo version of the classic game “telephone”: each time the story is told, it’s slightly different. But scientists say that stories whispered in successive ears aren’t too different from emotional memories recalled over time.

Dr. Ford Vox, a physician and journalist based in Atlanta, specializes in brain injury medicine. He says that what’s being perceived as severe journalistic faux pas is actually a natural consequence of the fallibility of human memory. In a commentary for CNN, Vox writes:

You may wonder how it’s possible that Williams tricked himself into such a vivid false memory told in such detail. He did experience some aspects of the events. Though he wasn’t in the Chinook that took a hit, he landed in that forward position with it. He formed bonds with the servicemen around him. He felt vulnerability and stress during that period.

Williams has told his story many times before, and each time he tells it, he is retrieving it. Errors happen during memory retrieval all the time, just as errors happen in cell division; biology isn’t computer science. Furthermore, he is subtly modifying his memory with his every retelling. Revisions occur as the memory is re-encoded based on what’s going on at the time he tells the story. Circumstances like a gabby, friendly free-wheeling interview with David Letterman.

Recent research has shown just how vulnerable our minds are to revision. In one study, researchers edited a photograph to depict now-adults as children riding in a hot air balloon. The result was that 50% of the adults believed they actually went on that balloon ride, even if they didn’t. In another study, researchers were able to convince 70% of their undergraduate volunteers that they had committed a crime in early adolescence.

Emotional memories are even more prone to modification. That’s because the amygdala (the emotional center of the brain) and the visual cortex have a direct line of communication. When our emotions are heightened, our amygdala tells our eyes to pay closer attention and our hippocampus (which encodes our memories) to work harder. All of this means that emotional memories are stronger in content but hazy when it comes to peripheral details. Here’s Maria Konnikova, reporting for The New Yorker on the work of New York University psychologist Elizabeth Phelps:

While the memory of the event itself is enhanced, Phelps explains, the vividness of the memory of the central event tends to come at the expense of the details. We experience a sort of tunnel vision, discarding all the details that seem incidental to the central event.

So in telling repeated stories about his traumatic landing in Iraq, Williams may not have consciously erred, but merely made a very human mistake. While many would argue that he’s still in the wrong, the outcry over Williams’s slip-up does suggest that war and disaster reports could be met with more scrutiny in the future, especially now that the internet and social media allow anyone to very publicly fact check a story.