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Boston College Expert: Memory Distortion

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Elizabeth Kensinger

Elizabeth Kensinger
Professor of Psychology
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Professor Elizabeth Kensinger, Ph.D. is a memory expert who directs the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Boston College. Along with specializing in cognitive and affective neuroscience, Kensinger also is an expert in the effect of emotional content on the ability to remember; specifically, the cognitive and neural mechanisms through which emotion influences in the vividness and accuracy of memory, and how these influences change across the adult lifespan. She studies the effect of emotion on memory and how the links between emotion and memory change as adults age; what happens to memory in middle age, effects of sleep; and stress on memory. Elected to the highly selective International Society for Behavioral Neuroscience, Kensinger is the author of “Emotional Memory Across the Adult Lifespan” (Psychology Press, 2009) and the co-author of “How Does Emotion Affect Attention and Memory? Attentional Capture, Tunnel Memory, and the Implications for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” (Nova Science Publisher, Inc, 2010).



As NBC anchor Brian Williams begins the first day of his six-month suspension, one of the many questions seems to be: did the trusted anchor deliberately deceive the public, or was he deceived by his own memory? Studies show the latter is quite possible, and quite common.

“Although it is impossible to know whether his errors represent memory failures, it is within the realm of possibility,” says Boston College Psychology Professor Elizabeth Kensinger, an expert on memory. “Most of us would like to believe that our memories represent accurate reflections of the past, but some amount of memory distortion is the rule, not the exception. Our memories typically omit some details and incorporate others that are incorrect.  Sometimes, we confidently believe an event occurred in our past, when in reality, it did not.” 

Williams was suspended last night for embellishing his role aboard a military helicopter during his 2003 coverage of the war in Iraq. Over time, his stories shifted from him being behind the helicopter hit by a rocket propelled grenade to him actually being on the chopper that was hit.

“These false memories can occur for a number of reasons,” says Kensinger, director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Boston College. “We can confuse stories we've heard, or events we've imagined, with our own memories for the past.  We can forget the way an event actually occurred and instead remember it in the way we wish it had unfolded, or in the way we expected it to occur.

“These types of false memories are much easier to create than most of us would like to think,” continues Kensinger. “It is almost certain that every one of us has a ‘memory’ for a past event that never occurred or that occurred in a very different way from the way that we remember.”


Media Note:

Contact information for additional Boston College faculty sources on a range of subjects is available at: /offices/pubaf/journalist/experts.html


Sean Hennessey
Associate Director
Office of News and Public Affairs
Boston College

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