Understanding Memory Recall

Since time immemorial, the legal system has heavily relied on eyewitness accounts of events to administer justice. However, the capability of witnesses, adult or child, to accurately recall details from past experiences has been called into question, thus becoming a source of lengthy debate.

The situation gets even blurrier when dealing with cases that are sensitive in nature, such as child abuse. What weight should be given to the memory of an adult or child witness as evidence in child abuses cases?

Let’s take a look at the fallibility of memory and make a case against the legal system hinging its decisions on the use of eyewitness’ memory as evidence.

Memory Recall Can Omit Details From the Original Experience

Our memory performance – that is, how well we recall (or fail to recall) certain events – depends on a variety of factors called memory biases. These biases may distort our memory, or they may alter the content of our memories. As a result, each time you recall a past event, you may recall it differently than you did originally.

For example, a person may condition their brain to overlook the flaws of someone they love, making them give an altered account of a particular event.

That said, witness accounts of certain events can be completely inaccurate either due to an omission of some details from the original experience or a blatant alteration of facts of the event. One shouldn’t accept eyewitness testimony as gospel because of the many biases that can influence such evidence.

The Encoding and Recall Environments Seldom Match

Context is very important when the recall of a memory is used as evidence in a child abuse case. Generally speaking, peak recall efficiency can be achieved when the environments in both the learning and remembering phases are similar.

The wider the variation in the environments in which memories are encoded and retrieved, the more it is likely that our memories will be impaired.

When reviewing eyewitness testimonies, legal practitioners should consider how different the recall environment is from the encoding environment. If there’s a significant variation between the two environments, then placing heavy weight on eyewitness accounts of an event may not help dispense justice the right way.

Memories Are Reconstructed – Not Played Back

The legal system’s heavy reliance on eyewitness testimony may emanate from a misguided myth of how memory works. Many people believe that the mind records events and then replays them, on cue, exactly as recorded, just like a video recorder.

Far from this, memories are reconstructed – and not replayed – each time we recall them. Elizabeth F. Loftus, a distinguished psychologist of the University of California, Irvine, stated that memory recall is more like putting pieces of a puzzle together than replaying a video recording. Fragments of a witness’ account of an event may be unconsciously mixed with the responses to questions asked by the questioner, resulting in inaccurate recall.

When relying on eyewitness reports, listeners should be open to the reality that human recollection may be prone to error, and as such, not everything people say is gospel truth.

Distraction During the Encoding Phase Affects Memory Recall

Memory retrieval is an automatic process. However, disruptions in recall may occur if there were distractions at the time of encoding and storage of a memory.

According to an article authored by Fergus Craik in 2014, a distraction has a negative effect on the quality of long-term memory retrieval. Although there are control processes that try to offset the interference caused by the distraction, the overall quality of the encoding process tends to decline.

The performance of a separate task at the time of encoding has a significant negative impact on later recall.

Memory Recall Shouldn’t be Uncritically Accepted as Evidence in Child Abuse Cases

Child abuse is a real and ongoing threat to children throughout the U.S. While eyewitness accounts of events play an integral role in the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases, they’re not always accurate and often lead to profound and lifelong negative consequences.

Social workers and hearing officers in Child Abuse Central Index grievance hearings have a moral and legal duty to critically analyze and corroborate evidence gathered from memory recall before making judicial decisions.