Brian Williams suspended: A psychologist has their say on the NBC broadcaster's patchy memory about his involvement in Iraq War

Can the human brain falsely store memories that you then believe to be true?

Brian Williams, the disgraced NBC news anchor, has been suspended for what he called a mistake born out of a "fog of memory".

Williams was called out on an untrue account of being under fire in 2003.

He claimed on several occasions that he was shot down in a helicopter in Iraq, but his story was revealed to be false by army personnel who were in the targeted craft.

"Sorry dude, I don't remember you being on my aircraft," wrote Flight Engineer Lance Reynolds. "I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened."

Williams issued an apology and correction: "I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago," he said. "I want to apologise. I said I was travelling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] fire. I was instead in a following aircraft.

He has been suspended for six months by NBC.

We asked a psychologist if it's possible to misremember or even completely fabricate events that you then believe to be factually accurate.

"It can happen," Preethi Premkumar, lecturer in psychology at Nottingham Trent University, tells The Independent.

 

This phenomenon is known as a "critical lure", she explains. "Research shows that if events similar to something you actually experienced happen, you can be lured into thinking they happened to you."

For example, people taking part in a study about critical lure were easily convinced by their parents that they had been lost in a shopping mall as a young child, Premkumar says.

"Maybe being in the helicopter was stressful for Williams and similar to other experiences he'd had," Premkumar argues. "The helicopter being shot down could have been semantically similar - ie. similar in context - to what he did experience."

It can be confusing when things are semantically similar, as it means things you've seen or witnessed can be easily conflated with real experiences. "Perhaps Williams generalised and put events together," she says. "If he was uncertain about the real narrative of events, it's possible he could have believed that he was in the helicopter that was shot down."

Premkumar added that the hippocampus and the amygdala are parts of the brain that can hold fake memories. "In the hippocampus, a memory can be stored as real if you're convinced it happened," she says. "Or real world events can have an emotional impact on you and be saved in the amygdala as genuine experiences."

So, while Williams might not be off the hook, his "fog of memory" may well be a real thing.

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