Are You a Reliable Witness?

When I was in 5th grade, I was in a gifted pull-out program. Two days a week, I got to miss my afternoon classes in order to tackle challenges and puzzles that were outside the state-mandated curriculum.

One afternoon, we were all working hard at our tables on a set of brain teasers we had been given. We barely glanced up as a woman entered the classroom, spoke with our teacher for a few moments and then left.

It just didn’t seem important. After all, our task was to complete the puzzles.

Except it wasn’t.

Twenty minutes later, our teacher revealed the true purpose of the day’s lesson. She admitted the brain teasers had merely been a diversion as she handed out a sheet of paper with, what seemed at first glance, deceptively easy questions.

We worked independently to complete the page, answering questions about the woman who entered our room less than an hour prior: What was she wearing? What did her hair look like? What was she carrying?

As I glanced around the room, I noticed that all the students (myself included) seemed confident in their answers. After all, how hard is it to describe someone you just saw?

Pretty hard, as it turns out.

We came together to share our answers. It got rather heated.

“She had brown, curly hair.”

“No, it was blond.”

“It was brown, but it was straight.”

“Her hands were empty.”

“She was carrying books.”

As we continued to debate, some started to doubt their memories and allowed their minds to shift.

“I thought her shirt was red but, now that you mention it, I think it was yellow.”

The more we analyzed our memories, the more they changed.

The closer we looked, the more blurred the focus.

The woman had gone from inconsequential to significant as we all clambered to be right.

Finally, our teacher turned to the classroom door, opened it and welcomed the woman back in.

None of us had described her correctly.

We went on to discuss the use of witnesses in criminal trials and debated the ethics of sentences being handed down based upon the recollection of a bystander.

And I went on to always remember that lesson. To understand that we really aren’t as aware as we think we are and that when we’re called to remember, we fill in the gaps unconsciously.

And many years later, I found comfort in that lesson. I realized that my painful memories were malleable. That I could consciously fill in the gaps between remembrances to find meaning and purpose.

That at some point, memories fail to be an accurate representation of the past because they are always filtered through the knowledge of the present.

That it’s important to keep your mind open to the perceptions of others.

And that none of us are reliable witnesses to the past.

But it doesn’t matter.

Because it’s more important to be mindful and here in your now.

So that you are a reliable witness to your present.

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6 thoughts on “Are You a Reliable Witness?

  1. You touch on something here that is actually really important to the realm of relationships. I think it came from John Gottman’s “love lab”, but he found that couples who are in trouble usually have a hard time remembering the details of specific “high points” in the relationship, while couples who are doing well usually are better able to agree on those things.

    The brain is an interesting thing. Take something like affairs – people engaging in them often “rewrite” the conditions of their relationship in a distorted way and are able to convince themselves that their distorted view is the reality.

    Same thing with things like depression and anxiety disorders.

    We all see the world through the filters of our experiences, so it makes sense that different people are able to interpret the same actions and events differently.

    But it is fascinating that our memories of the past are malleable, and we can convince ourselves after the fact that our memories are quite different from how we interpreted them in the moment.

  2. I just saw a show about these people who had digital memory implanted so they could review everything that they saw, zoom in, lip read…I don’t think the memory is made to be like that. Memories are supposed to fade. The more vivid ones will stick around – and they’re probably more important. You make a good point about living in the now.

  3. What a wonderful excercise! Life long lesson learned as long as make an effort to remember it. That teacher must have been a great one.

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