The last 20 years have seen dramatic inroads into our understanding of how memory works. One implication of this research has been the undermining of the previously iron-clad authority of eye-witness testimony. Through cleverly designed experiments, psychologists have demonstrated how easy it is to alter what people are sure they’ve seen -- that new suggestions can be incorporated into original memory, that the longer the time lapse, the weaker the reliability, and that our desire to view the world in familiar context determines how we construct our memory, and so on.

This is a serious issue with far-reaching consequences. For those convicted of serious crimes based mostly on the sworn testimony of eye-witnesses, the validity of the memory can literally mean the difference between life and death. With the increased use of DNA testing, and with deeper insight into the malleability of our memories, the courts are moving towards a more balanced and nuanced position. It will take time to change the public perceptions of the infallibility of eye-witness testimony (we’ve seen too many movies with angry victims pointing accusing fingers at the defendant in the courtroom!) but with careful judicial guidance, change will eventually occur.

Will it occur in our personal lives as well? How many times have we believed a negative story because our friend saw it happen? Heard it herself? Was standing right there? There is a Jewish principle of judging favorably, so we’ve trained ourselves to see seemingly unpleasant situations in a more positive light and to put a more favorable spin on the information.

Perhaps what we need to consider is the potential inaccuracy of the information itself. “But I saw it with my own eyes!” seems to have limited meaning based on the latest science. Yet we allow friendships, marriages, families to be destroyed by it. We assume it’s correct instead of more appropriately assuming it's fallacious.

I think this new research is worth disseminating widely. Not only has it discredited many abuse cases based on false memories/recovered memories, not only has it allowed for pardons in many cases of wrongful conviction, but it could lead to an improvement in all of our interpersonal relationships.

We should be less convinced by what we hear, less sure of what we see. Less “I believe it when I see it” and more “I must have missed something, I must have misunderstood, I must not have grasped the whole picture.”

We conduct trials of our friends and loved ones on a regular basis. Maybe now we’ll be more impartial and fairer judges.