NBC Anchor's "Fog of Memory" — His Explanation for False Claim about Being Shot Down in Iraq — Is Likely "Spot On," Baylor Psychologist Says

Feb. 5, 2015

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WACO, Texas (Feb. 5, 2015) -- The explanation by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams that he "misremembered" being aboard a helicopter shot down in Iraq in 2003 is probably "spot on," says a Baylor University memory reconstruction expert.

Viewers and others may be doubting Williams' credibility after he recanted his claim and apologized, saying his "fog of memory of 12 years" may have made him "conflate" the memories of two planes -- the helicopter that was shot down and the Chinook behind it that Williams was traveling in.

Williams "did what all of us do — you get your story together and that’s your story,” said Charles Weaver, Ph.D., chair and professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences, who has conducted studies on memory.

“Many people heard about this and say, 'This would never happen to me.' But it happens to us all the time — we just don’t have written records of it,” Weaver said.

In his apology, Williams referred to “an account I found in my own writing” from 2008 that said he was traveling behind the helicopter.

Williams, quoted in Stars and Stripes, said that "I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.” He said that “I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”

Weaver has done studies on what he calls “flashbulb memory” — the false notion that details of a traumatic experience are accurately seared into our memories. In fact, our memories are somewhat like an edited videotape, and we continually edit and splice, sometimes with a little outside assistance.

An example of memory reconstruction that Weaver cites is the recall of many about 9/11.

In one study, Weaver and another researcher asked hundreds of college students to recall what they saw and felt on the day of the terrorist attacks. More than 70 percent remembered seeing footage of the first plane striking the World Trade Center. Many recalled feeling rage toward Osama bin Laden. In fact, neither the footage of the first plane nor hints of al Qaeda's involvement became available until the day after the attacks, Weaver said.

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Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

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