Brian Williams’s claim that he was shot down in Iraq isn’t true—but it doesn’t make him a liar

BY THOMAS G. FIFFER

People on the Internet are busy today spewing hate at Brian Williams for claiming he was on a helicopter that got shot down over Iraq

Personally, I’m not upset with Brian Williams at all, because I think that’s what he actually remembered, even though it was inaccurate. And when corrected by soldiers who were there, he changed his story and apologized, without being ashamed of his mistake. I also believe ducking for cover from sniper fire was what Hillary Clinton remembered when she landed in Bosnia, even though her memory didn’t square with the camera footage. 

I can tell you that I remember a lot of things about my first marriage and subsequent divorce differently from the way my ex-wife remembers them. In fact, our differing perception of events throughout the marriage was one of the factors in our divorce. To a large degree, this memory divergence is normal and exists not only because any two people will perceive a moment in time differently, but also because the emotions we experience in a moment influence and ultimately determine the version of that moment that we store and recall.

Our brains don’t have the capacity to store a complete instant replay of every second of time we experience.

It helps to begin with a working understanding of how memory works. Our brains don’t have the capacity to store a complete instant replay of every second of time we experience. To achieve total perfect recall, we would each need our own personal cloud with a few yottabytes of storage. A yottabyte is the largest unit of data storage we have so far—something like a googolplex of gigabytes, only exponentially bigger. 

Given our limited storage space, and the need, if you will, to keep overwriting the tapes, we retain what the brain identifies as key nuggets of our experience and, believe it or not, actually invent the rest by drawing from similar experiences and the range of what we know is probable. The nuggets that get stored, and the reconstituted story we form around them, are strongly influenced by our state of mind. 

In the book, The Invisible Gorilla, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, the authors explore and explain the mystery of what we notice, what we don’t, and why. On the role of emotion in memory they write:

Beware of memories accompanied by strong emotions and vivid details—they are just as likely to be wrong as mundane memories, but you’re far less likely to realize it.

In his eye-opening TED Talk, “The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory,” nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman draws a critical distinction between our experiencing selves and our remembering selves and identifies factors that affect not only how we remember but also how we perceive happiness. Other research suggests that emotional arousal sometimes enhances and sometimes impairs memory.

The reality—and something I know and confess as a professional storyteller—is that every story we tell includes elements of fiction, whether we’re aware of them or not.

Every story we tell includes elements of fiction, whether we’re aware of them or not.

Think of the movie The Truman Show—which, though it was the ultimate reality show, wasn’t real. Or take a look at Dara Horn’s novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, in which the main character invents a software program that records everything its users do and allows them to go back and review it. This is the stuff of fiction, or science fiction. The reality—and something I know and confess as a professional storyteller—is that every story we tell includes elements of fiction, whether we’re aware of them or not. Think of all the times you’ve shared a childhood memory with your parents, and they’ve come back at you with a wholly different version. The key is to understand the difference between “That’s not what happened,” and “That’s not what I remember.”

Just as we expect our political leaders and cultural icons to be fit and well-groomed with salon-styled hair and perfect white teeth, as well as endowed with incorruptible morals and unerring judgment—and we gasp collectively when they inevitably fall from grace before shifting quickly into “I suspected it all along” mode, we also expect them to possess perfect recall when it comes to their memories. Yet as humans, they are no more capable of it than we are.

An intentional, purposeful, fabricated lie for personal or professional benefit is one thing and must not be tolerated or condoned. But an honest mistake, the kind where we believed that what we brought forth was our true experience even though it wasn’t, is something humans make every single day, and I believe we should be both tolerant and forgiving and take a close look at our own glass houses before we start casting stones.

This article was originally featured on the Good Men Project and reposted with permission.

Photo via NBC/YouTube