‘The Joy of False Memory.’ This tantalising title brought twenty ladies to the WI’s July meeting. Asked where a person might vow to tell the complete truth, one supposes the answer would be ‘in a court of law’. But our speaker, Dr Kate Bellamy, succeeded in convincing us that all is not as simple as that.

She came to us from Edinburgh University’s Department of Cognitive Neuroscience, which specialises in brain diseases and injuries; and with the treatment of victims of post-traumatic stress disorders. This problem, often associated with warfare, is now recognised as requiring specialist medical care but this has not always been the case.

Hypnotherapy and regression of memory were once regarded as the best treatment for mental disorder and, as such, were widely practised in the USA. Patients would ‘relive’ their memories, frequently related to violence suffered as a child. Often these implicated alleged criminals, resulting in the imprisonment of hundreds of men based on the ‘testimony’ gained under hypnosis.

As time passed such methods were challenged and this prompted F. C. Bartlett to investigate the processes by which people recall situations. His book, Remembering, recorded experiments based on the oral traditions of Native Americans, the first being a story, ‘The War of the Ghosts. He told this to a number of people and then asked them to retell it to him individually. He found that each of them altered slight details which made for distinct differences, although all asserted they were repeating the story exactly. (Cf. Chinese Whispers.) Their reconstruction of the story often reflected their own social background.

In our own time, Prof. Elizabeth Loftus of Edinburgh University has written Witness for the Defence, showing how our memories can be faulty but, even if disproved, can last during our lifetime. Fortunately, developments in forensic science can provide ever-accurate evidence that helps to counter the inaccurate memories of witnesses in courts of law.

False memory is part of a child’s learning process and fits into a society where other children have similar experiences. What we regard as ‘our memories’ can be comforting and give a feeling of safety. Our ‘flash-bulb’ memories of startling events can be inaccurate but our attention to them cuts out unnecessary detail and we become convinced that they are true.
So, our brain often prioritise our memories and we find enjoyment in them – even though they are false!

Having no meeting until the Autumn did not mean that activities were suspended. On August 6, Sue Moon will host a barbecue and, on August 16, Ann Farr’s home will be the venue for a craft day. October will see a group meeting in Barford (18th ) and a trip to Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire. Meanwhile, we shall be knitting squares for a blanket for the Calais ‘Jungle’ and thinking of ideas for next year’s WI Resolutions.

Barbara Alcock