Along with a large segment of the American population, I have recently been intrigued by the Netflix phenomenon, Making a Murderer, a documentary series that details Steven Avery’s involvement with the criminal justice system after he serves 18 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. While in the midst of a $36 million civil suit against the county that imprisoned him for damages related to his wrongful conviction, he is accused and later convicted of the brutal murder of a young woman with whom he had brief professional interaction.
Now, I’m a psychotherapist, not an expert in criminal justice and I am certainly not here to argue in either direction in this case. In my work as a psychotherapist I’ve gained a deep understanding of how memory works. As such, while I watched the docudrama, I questioned the accuracy of the testimonies provided by witnesses months, and even years, after the fact.
We know some very important things about memory. One thing that we know is that our memories don’t work like giant filing cabinets where we can just go in and retrieve a piece of information at will. Our memories are, rather, the result of a series of experiences that have been linked together neurologically. An experience fires neurons in our brain, which links to other neurons that are firing simultaneously, thus creating an association or a linkage of neurons. Perhaps you have heard the term, “neurons that fire together wire together” which is essentially what has been described above. For example, if you are in a really good mood with lots of “feel good chemicals” firing in your neural network when you go skiing for the very first time, those two experiences, (feeling “happy and upbeat” and skiing) are going to be linked together in your mind and an association between the two will be created. Thus, you will likely have a memory that skiing is a pleasant and enjoyable activity. On the other hand, if you are in a bad mood with your system deplete of the neurochemicals that create a sense of well-being the first time you go skiing, a neurological linkage will be formed and your memory of skiing will likely be that it is a miserable event that you might be inclined to avoid in the future.
Additionally, memory is not like a Xerox machine where memory retrieval results in an exact replica of an event each time the memory is accessed. The truth is that, each time we retrieve a memory, we alter it slightly based on the circumstances that we are in when the memory is retrieved. If a memory of a significant loss is stored at a time when we don’t have access to a strong support system to help us make sense of the loss, that memory will likely be encoded as a highly disturbing and even traumatic event. If we later retrieve that same memory in the presence of a warm, supportive, trusted person who will listen intently as we recount the details of the loss, that memory will be altered and likely be refiled in our memory bank as a much less painful event, something that we have weathered and can learn from.
Most of our memories are stored as what are called “body based” memories. These memories are outside of conscious awareness, yet they can impact us significantly. They help shape how we feel, determine what we believe, and influence how we perceive our world. If these memories have an intense emotional component associated with them, they will have a great impact on our present functioning and we will likely not even be aware of that impact. This is not a problem as long as the memory’s impact on our present lives is positive, but it can be very problematic if the impact is negative. For instance, if a person’s basic needs for food and shelter were not met as a small child, that person will likely develop a belief that the world is not a safe, trusted place where his or her needs matter, but rather that the world is a harsh and brutal place where his or her needs will not be met.
Fortunately, we know that it is not the actual events that we experience in life that determine our level of happiness, our emotional stability, or the quality of our relationships, but rather the sense that we are able to make of those life events. We can never alter the actual events that have occurred in our lives, but we can reinterpret those life events in healthier and happier ways. As social creatures, we best make sense of our life experiences in the context of safe, warm and trusted relationships. At times, professional help is needed to sort through the puzzle pieces of our lives.
Coming full circle in this article, I don’t have answers for how our criminal justice system can avoid relying on what are clearly the faulty memories of witnesses in an effort to avoid wrongfully convicting innocent people, but I am trained in methods of psychotherapy that will allow me to assist you in coming to terms with aspects of your past that may prove to be troublesome in your current life. If you need professional services to achieve a greater measure of peace in your life, please contact Wasatch Family Therapy at 801-944-4555 to set an appointment with Katrina Appiah, LCSW.