The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across a keyboard

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Human Memory and Eye Witness Accounts - Information for Writers



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Excerpt from WEAKEST LYNX -


     “Wilson’s stable. In police custody at Suburban. He’s being charged with breaking and entering with intent to harm, and possession.”
     I waited for the rest of the charges.
     Striker pursed his lips.
     “Wait. What about six murders and an attempted murder?” My voice squeaked.
     “The D.A. is having trouble putting together a case. The original six were linked to you by the MO. We have no evidence. None. Though they’ve been working on developing the case since your attack.”
     “But what about me? I saw him. The neighbors saw him. We confirmed the police sketch. Surely…”
     “Subsequent to seeing him, you sustained a traumatic brain injury. The defense can shred your eye-witness report on the witness stand. Same with the neighbors. They were running in the dark. Could be a look alike. There were no prints, no DNA, no motive linking you two. They need something more or they can’t make the case.”


THE INNOCENCE PROJECT "Many wrongful convictions overturned with DNA testing involve multiple causes: 75% involve eyewitness misidentification... Prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense, police misconduct and racism are harder to quantify but were also factors in many of the wrongful convictions that have been overturned with DNA testing." 

75% of wrongful convictions involved eyewitness misidentification? How is this possible?

The first thing that needs to be understood about memory is that humans do not process events like a video recorder. We process information based on focus, intensity, and past experiences. 

All of our individual past experiences form "schema" in our memory banks. As we encounter information our brain looks into its schema-files and develops an understanding based on what it has experienced before.
When one remembers an incident the various past schema can overlap and mingle. The witness memory can be crystal clear - but it might not be the reality of what took place.


The dorsal stream (green) and ventral stream (...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Four Types of Memory


* Cognitive - These are sequences and patterns.
* Motor Vestibular -Body memories such as
   playing a instrument or driving a car
* Emotional/Affective - These are memories of
   feelings like grief and fear.
* State - These are memories from the senses. State
   memories seem to be the most helpful in developing
   a  clear picture of what occurred. PTSD plays from
   this memory - a certain smell or noise can trigger a
   physical reaction. Auditory memories are less reliable than visual
   memory. But  as a plot twist, an author should understand that
   witnesses are more confident in what they hear than what they
   see.

The Stages of Memory 




''Note that in this diagram, sensory memory is...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
* Short Term - Unimportant data that is processed in the now. If
   the brain deems something to be important it moves the
    information into long term memory.        
* Long Term - Can be retrieved from past events. One's ability to
   recall depends on how information was processed. Processing
   depends on which of the four types of memories or which
   combination were used to interpret and "cluster" (this is basically
   a filing system).

The more significance-in-the-moment and the more types of memories involved create the clearest and most accurate memory picture. As a writer, think about your character. As she remembers something, which of her memory types is she using? For example, does she cognitively recall the fear that slowed her sequence of her actions when she smelled the smoke? Could she be making a profound mistake because she clustered the schema and now has a faulty memory? Did she remember the man saying, "I will kill you!" when she was really merging the event with a nightmare she had had just the night before?  

Remember that no two people could ever remember an event from the same perspective. It's just not possible. What if your characters had completely different memory schemas of an event? Wow - all hell could break loose!

VIDEO QUICK STUDY - (9:02) FALSE MEMORY AND EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY                                             interactive, very interesting!

So we know that people will perceive with four different kinds of memory. They will either store in their long term memory, or not. They will develop a schema based on their past experiences and cluster these in their memory banks. But what are some of the components that might interfere in a clear and accurate memory? 

A list of possibilities:

* Beliefs
Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...
Animation of the structure of a section of DNA. The bases lie horizontally between the two spiraling strands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
* Stress levels
* Cross Racial Identification Bias
   Brains are wired to identify distinctions in our own
   race but NOT other  races. 
* Distinctive Aspects - People will remember
   particularly attractive or especially unattractive
   physicality better than "average" looks.
* Age of Witness - Children and elderly are less
  accurate and their descriptors might be different as
  well. Example: to a five year old "really old" could
  mean someone who is in their thirties.
* Gender - Men and women remember different
   aspects because of how their brains are wired. A
   man, for example, might remember the make and
   year of a car while a woman might remember that
   it was blue.
* Profession - Ex. an artist might have a better ability
   to recall the face structure while a physical
   therapist might notice a posture or unusual gait.    
* Drug or Alcohol Use
* Head Trauma - As in the excerpt from Weakest
   Lynx
* Weapons Focus Effect-If there is a weapon present
   the witness focus remains on the weapon (duh) and
   not on anything else in the environment.
   (LINK - Blog about my experience as a eye witness
     in a simulation)
* Attention - A victim or bystander will pay more
   attention to details if they are aware of what is happening
   than someone who is not aware that something is going on. Even
   if the witnesses are very attentive and good with faces, it is hard
   to find the words to describe a person. Try this experiment - think
   of someone you know very well, now try to describe out loud
   their features so that someone could draw them
   (Witness recall and Police Sketch Artists)
* Setting - Full day light, face full on, length of time of incident
   and time when recalled. 20 min can cause a sharp decrease in the
   number things that can be remembered.
* System Variables - These are police and legal procedures that
   can introduce bias.

In the 1977 Supreme Court decision in Manson v Brathwaite (Information Link)  - It was determined that eyewitnesses are allowed to testify if they are very sure of testimony. If they are unsure it is up to the judge in the case whether to allow or not. Psychological studies have shown that the degree of certainty does not correlate with accuracy. 

Many countries realized that innocent people were going to jail based on false witness memory - remember the witnesses can be 100% sure of themselves. They are not in any way "bad"; it is the way that memory works that makes eye witness testimony so very difficult. In 1999, Janet Reno was tasked with trying to develop procedures to help prevent some of these false-memory reports.

If your book takes place AFTER 1999, it should reflect these changes:

* Police ask open ended questions. Instead of asking, "Did he have
   a gun?" thus planting the memory of a gun, the police should ask,
   "Do you remember a weapon of any kind?"

* Police should pause before asking another question, giving the
   witness a chance to think about a situation and perhaps remember
   another detail - This is one I used a lot in my counseling practice:
   Ask. Answer. Wait.

* The police should inform the witness that they can say, "I don't
   know." This helps to prevent the witness from trying to fill in the
   blank with information that is being pulled from a different
   schema.

* The police, when possible, should physically walk the witness
   through the crime scene. This might trigger memories from the 
   "state" memory bank.

* Careful use of Police Lineups - A line up, either in person or with
   photos, should be done in a double-blind scenario. The officers 
   who are conducting the lineup should not know who the suspect
   is. This stops the voice inflection and body language tells that are
   picked up by the brain of the witness ex. "Are you sure that's the 
   right guy?

  VIDEO QUICK STUDY of Line Up Experiment (1:45)
         spoiler - none of the photos were of the criminal
  VIDEO QUICK STUDY - Line Up and False Memory (4:35) The
         students were extremely sure of
         themselves and would have, under the Supreme Court ruling, 
         been allowed to testify. Watch their faces
         as every single one of them realizes that they were wrong.

Relative Judgement - when a witness tries to pick the person who most closely aligns with the memory of that person. To prevent the witness from feeling that they HAVE to make an identification the officers should say that the subject MAY or MAY NOT be in the lineup. Also, the members in the lineup should be presented sequentially one after the other and one at a time. Witness will compare the suspect to the mental picture and not use relative judgement.


        
Fillers - the other people in the line-up should look similar. If         the suspect had dreadlocks then the fillers should have dreadlocks. If the witness picks a filler, then it should be noted that their recall
might be questionable. 

         VIDEO QUICK STUDY Comparing with Filler (3:00)
         Shown through an experiment and description

How can your heroine help?

During a crime the heroine could look for anything that is unique and difficult to shed or change such as:
        * Body-type (height, weight), tattoos, scars, focus on ears and
           nose.
        * Movement - limps, postures
        * Voice - lisps, unusual accents or speech patterns

As soon as possible - and without talking to ANYONE ELSE the heroine should sit down and write down all of  the details that she can recall - She could write them, sketch them, or even call and leave a message recording so she can retrieve the information later.

Try this mini-experiment:  Eye Witness - How Do You Stack Up?




Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

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10 comments:

  1. Excellent post, Fiona. Very informative!
    eden

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by, Eden.

      Delete
    2. Eden Baylee can be found at http://www.edenbaylee.com/. Go check her out!

      Delete
  2. This is exactly why I've never wanted to get put in a police lineup.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is why? Hahaha Randall, I can think of BUNCHES of reasons!But if you are in a line up as "filler" you're safe. They would put you in for "look-alike" reasons and be very clear that you could not have taken part in the crime. The problem would be if you were the police target and the witness picked you out. One of the problems with memory is that the witness could remember you there as a by-stander and the memory is stored as you-as-a-participant. Or just a look-alike with a bad alibi. Scary.

      Delete
  3. I appreciate and enjoy your blog so very much. Thanks for putting all the details we need in one wonderful resource!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Fiona- Are we to assume that the police will use a helpful protocol in questioning a witness? Isn't it legal for police to lie in an investigation? Based on this premise, couldn't police lead a witness via mode of questioning? Reno's efforts may have changed some things, but are changes you mentioned guaranteed? Where does video fit in & is it required & if so, are there set perimeters? Is there a chart of changes in police procedure by year or by decade? Thanks for all that you do for writers.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hey Bonnie,
    In their training, police officers are taught not to lead/how to ask questions correctly. It is in their best interest to catch the actual bad guy and get them off the street. To have accurate information, interviews are often recorded, especially if they are conducted at the station. Videos or voice recordings are usually made to protect the information and so the officers are not being accused of tainting a witness report when it comes up in court. Also, these recordings show where witnesses change their stories (for example if the witness is being threatened). There are no guarantees. BUT a witness isn't required to say anything. A witness could opt to, for example, sit down and write out everything they remember,draw sketches etc. and hand that over, or go chat with their lawyers. Or, they can choose not to be helpful at all. I'm not aware of a chart and any stats would probably be part of research papers.

    Hope this helps,
    Fiona

    ReplyDelete
  6. This is very very good stuff for writers, thanks.

    It's risky, though, to talk about short and long term memory because although it's widely believed that there are structures ("parts of the brain") for this, writers should be aware that it's not that simple.

    As I understand it, whether memory lasts long term is much like whether cart tracks are left in a road. If the same cart passes every day, it will wear a rut into the road. Similarly, if a single especially heavily loaded cart passes, it will press a deep rut into the road.

    Whether a memory endures long term is affected by repetition an regularity, but also by associated emotional or cognitive load.

    But there are oddities that the cart analogy doesn't cover, like the way that two people may have the same traumatic experience, but the one who is stressed and careworn but other, unrelated concerns (money troubles are the most common) will be the one who is the least traumatised.

    It's a deep and often counterintuitive topic and I really appreciate your attention to detail.

    ReplyDelete