Ben Bradlee’s Memories and the Science of Forgetting

The dust-up over what Ben Bradlee does or does not remember about some details of the Watergate story makes scientists’ point that our memory is constantly shifting, influenced by a host of factors.

05.03.12 8:45 AM ET

“Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen?” Ben Bradlee apparently wondered aloud, in a conversation he had in 1990 with Barbara Feinman, the woman helping him write his memoir. “[A]nd meeting in some garage. One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don’t know how many meetings in the garage,” Bradlee evidently continued. “There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.”

The potted plant? Deep throat in the garage? These are iconic details from the Watergate years.  How could the great newspaper editor not be sure?

Bradlee’s words have been making the rounds since last weekend, when New York Magazine published an excerpt from the upcoming book, Yours in Truth, by Jeff Himmelman. In the excerpt, Himmelman describes finding a memo documenting the conversation, a rare expression of doubt from Ben Bradlee as he mulled over the vivid details of an event that had occurred 20 years earlier.

The publication of the excerpt provoked a vehement denial from Bob Woodward, then a statement from Bradlee, via his wife, that he stands behind Woodward’s journalistic integrity.

Bradlee is now in his nineties. He is reacting to a remark he made in 1990 about an experience he’d gone through in 1972.

It’s layer upon layer. And the great misconception about memory is based on the belief that it’s possible to go back beneath the layers and pull one out, intact.

“The fact of the matter is, you can’t get back to your past,” says William Hirst, a professor of psychology at The New School. In his research, Hirst focuses on how what we do or don’t remember is influenced by the context in which we’re remembering—where we are, and, more important, who we’re talking to.

“You’re constantly shaping your memory,” says Hirst.

The implications of this statement are hard to accept. We believe in the veracity of our memories. Yet, in truth, they’re constantly shifting, influenced by a host of factors.

In scientific terms, this shape-shifting phenomenon is known as ‘reconsolidation,’ and it’s been one of the most attention-getting discoveries in neuroscience in the last decade. Reconsolidation refers to the cellular processes that occur when a memory is brought to mind. What memory-scientists have discovered is that, on the level of individual neurons, the simple act of remembering raises the possibility of revision. With each recollection, we get farther away from the original experience.

In the current dust-up over what Ben Bradlee does or doesn’t remember about the plant getting moved across the balcony, there’s an added element of memory-confound at play.  Bradlee has directly witnessed Woodward and Bernstein’s story change form so many times—from fledgling newsroom pitch, to  finished newspaper account, to book, to movie, and , finally, to myth.

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“The problem moving from one medium to another is that it’s not a perfect transfer,” says Hirst. “Each act of remembering is very selective. And the medium in which you undertake the remembering will guide in some way, shape, or form what you select to remember or what you don’t select to remember.”

And furthermore, says Hirst, each rendition of a memory reinforces what is said, and erodes what isn’t.

“When you fail to retrieve information but remember other things, when you selectively remember, the unmentioned information is actively suppressed,” Hirst says.  “And that suppression is lasting.”

Hirst is one of the researchers involved with a study that has recently demonstrated the malleability of memory in unusually dramatic style. In the first days after 9/11, the researchers asked people on the street detailed questions about exactly where they were when they’d first heard the news of the attacks.

After each subsequent year, they revisited the same subjects, asking them to repeat their answers.

After one year, they found that subjects were accurate only about 60 percent of the time. This despite the fact that hearing news of the terrorist attacks was for most people an emotional experience, one that feels like it’s seared into memory in irreproachable detail. Even those memories we feel most confident about are often fundamentally flawed.

There’s some comfort in knowing that not all elements of a memory are equally prone to revision.

Indeed, as Dylan Byers observed in an article from Politico, “the [New York Magazine] article makes it clear that Bradlee was by no means questioning the substance of Woodward’s reporting on the Watergate scandal, only raising doubts at one point in time about some small, yet dramatic, details surrounding the story.”

It’s worth noting that it’s the “small details surrounding” any story that are most vulnerable to mental smudging. It’s the peripheral information—the song playing on the radio while the crime took place—rather than the central episode itself that tends to be remade or discarded over time.

In an intriguing coincidence, a well-known study on this very subject used Watergate as its material.

In 1981, the psychologist Ulric Neisser saw a research opportunity in the testimony that John Dean, a former counsel to Richard Nixon, gave to the committee investigating the Watergate scandal.

In his testimony, Dean was asked to repeat a few conversations he’d had with Nixon—conversations that, it later turned out, were being tape-recorded. Comparing the transcripts of Dean’s actual conversations and what Dean thought had been said, Neisser discovered that Dean’s renditions were endlessly flawed.

He systematically misremembered the details, but he retained the larger-picture essence of what had been said.

The gist stayed the same.