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The neuroscience of memory: implications for the courtroom

Abstract

Although memory can be hazy at times, it is often assumed that memories of violent or otherwise stressful events are so well encoded that they are effectively indelible and that confidently retrieved memories are almost certainly accurate. However, findings from basic psychological research and neuroscience studies indicate that memory is a reconstructive process that is susceptible to distortion. In the courtroom, even minor memory distortions can have severe consequences that are partly driven by common misunderstandings about memory — for example, that memory is more veridical than it may actually be.

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Figure 1: Memory generalization over time in rodents.

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Correspondence to Craig E. L. Stark.

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FURTHER INFORMATION

The Innocence Project

PowerPoint slides

Glossary

Lie detection training

Classroom instruction given to law enforcement personnel on how to detect subtle cues of deception.

Misinformation effect

A distortion in an original memory or the creation of a false memory after being exposed to misleading information related to the memory. The 'misinformation' is considered 'misleading' as it detracts from the true memory, not because it is purposefully deceitful.

War of the Ghosts

A Native American fable. It was used by Barlett to show that it was difficult for English participants to recall the fable precisely because it did not fit into their conceptual framework; that is, English participants were not familiar with Native American traditions, and they therefore tended to reinterpret the story in a context more in line with English culture.

Weapon focus

The tendency for a witness's attention to be drawn to a weapon, thereby increasing subsequent memory for the weapon but impairing memory for the perpetrator.

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Lacy, J., Stark, C. The neuroscience of memory: implications for the courtroom. Nat Rev Neurosci 14, 649–658 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3563

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