How Brian Williams’s Mind Played Tricks on Him

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Adam Tiouririne Adam Tiouririne | Bio | Posts
9 Feb 2015 | 12:50PM

Brian Williams is under fire (figuratively) this week for falsely claiming he was under fire (literally) in Iraq in 2003.

The NBC Nightly News anchor apologized for the error two days ago, which only spawned further critiques, detailed timelines, and very high-profile calls for his head (figuratively again).

The BriWi Affair has also raised questions about how America’s most-watched news anchor could have so casually discarded his credibility. “Why did Brian Williams lie?” blared Politico this morning.

I’m pretty sure that Williams didn’t lie. His mind just played tricks on him.

Williams has likely succumbed, in the 12 years since the Iraq incident, to his labile (or changeable) memory. In a way, our minds play a trick on us each time we recall a memory. We slightly, unknowingly edit the facts to make them more relevant to our lives, and over Williams’s 12 years, that’s a lot of editing.

Listen to this fascinating explanation from Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden:

It’s tough to tell whether any one person has been lied to by his own memory, or whether he’s really been lying to us. In any case, while the scientific discovery of labile memory is pretty new, humans have long known that our memories are unreliable: We talk about memories that are “fuzzy” or “lost” or, most apt for Williams’s case, shrouded in the “fog of war.”

So, whether he intentionally lied or not, Brian Williams is most definitely on the hook for one big failure.

Although he did report on the incident accurately in 2003 — “On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky.” — he failed to review that history in order to compensate for his labile memory. For a journalist, that failure of documentation is particularly grave.

Instead, Williams told the story from “memory” each time, but each time the “memory” had changed.

It’s a lesson to all of us, for our most important memories, to arm ourselves (um, still figuratively) with what we need — photos or documents or journals — to keep our minds from playing tricks on us.

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