This week, I read a thought-provoking article about how our memories become distorted by traumatic events, “Perceptual and Memory Distortions During Officer Involved Shootings,” by Alexis Artwohl.
The article is well worth a read, (just click on the title above). I thought I’d pull out the three points that most shocked me.
When you witness, or are part of a traumatic event, your memory may be impaired in several ways. Here are three:
1. Your hearing may be affected…
Many report that they didn’t hear the gunshots or sirens and if they do remember the sounds they seemed distant and muffled. This explains why some policeman can’t remember how many rounds they fired.
2. Your peripheral vision may be narrowed…
In a traumatic situation many experience a heightened visual clarity that allows them to remember in great detail a small area, but the outlying area, isn’t clear. They experience tunnel vision.
3. Your mind may forget parts of what happened…
It’s also common for people in these situations to have “Kodak moments” or “flashbulb memories.” That is, they have a series of clear images stored in their brain, but not a complete memory of what happened. Researchers have found that after 24 hours, more memory is restored, as we “integrate” our memories during REM sleep.
Here are two quotes from police officers:
“”If it hadn’t been for the recoil, I wouldn’t have known my gun was working. Not only didn’t I hear the shots, but afterwards my ears weren’t even ringing.”
I saw the suspect pointing his gun at my partner and as I shot him I saw my partner get shot and go down in a spray of blood. After I neutralized the suspect, I ran over to help my partner and he was standing there unharmed. The suspect never even got off a shot.””
From this article I take away two lessons. First, I’ll never blame a policeman for not describing everything that happened in an incident. It’s not his fault that he can’t remember all the details. And second, the characters in my stories who witness traumatic events, must be deeply affected by it, not just emotionally (which I always detail) but also physically. They may not be able to recall the entire event and that too will traumatize them.
The brain is fascinating.
Have you experienced distorted memories?