9/11 and the illusion of memory

I have been reading many interesting books lately. I will write about some of them later. I am reading now is « The Invisible Gorilla« , a cognitive psychology work from the people who invented the famous « Invisible Gorilla » experiment – hence the title of the book.

In case you don’t know what I am speaking about, just watch this short movie:

Did you fall for it ? I did and so did 50% of the people according to them.

I did study social psychology during my Communication and Journalism Master at Hebrew University at the end of the 90’s and it was one of the few really fascinating classes I had at this time – the rest was mostly post-modern nonsense. Nowadays, I have a much higher interest in economics but I tend to keep up with the works of our fellow Israelis Dan Arieli or Daniel Kahneman that link cognitive psychology and economics.

This book is a relatively good introduction to the subject. It explains how much we are wrong to rely on our senses and fall prey to many kinds of illusions.

The authors speak among others about the illusion of memory, how what we think we remember is much less accurate than we believe and can’t be relied upon. This is also true of the memories of great historical events that have been imprinted in our brains – or so do we believe.

Take the 9/11 events. Do you remember where you were when you learned about it ? Do you remember what you did before and after ? Probably yes and with great accuracy. You remember many details, even how you felt, what you thought, and many other things. It was 11 years ago and you can remember much more about it than what you did exactly two weeks ago.  The problem is – you are probably mistaken. In the book, the authors compare their recollection of the day with people who were with them. Some details are the same, but many are vastly different. Some people completely forgot about an event, or attribute it to someone else.

So what about my memory of the day ? I do remember very well, apparently, what I did on the 11 of September 2001. I was spending the day at Hebrew University to help Lavi – the Likud Student Group that I created two years before – recruit new members for the next year. I had just completed one year in the IDF (Tsahal) exactly one month before and just came back from a trip in Paris. I remember that I was with a guy called Avi who was the vice-president of Lavi, that we were dressed with the Blue Lavi T-shirt, and that we did recruit that day a very beautiful girl called Hadas.

At some point, after 15:00, I went back home. I was living at the Pisgat Zeev East neighborhood at the time. At some point before I got home, maybe already at the university, my sister called me from Paris. She was at the store with my mother, they heard about a plane crashing in the World Trade Center on the radio. I thought she was talking about a small plane and that it was an accident. I arrived home and switched on TV. By that time, the second plane had already landed in the other tower and I knew it was a terrorist attack. I immediately thought Ben Laden and Al Qaida were responsible, they already had attacked the WTC in 1993 and had launched most of the major attacks against US targets in the previous years. I remember watching the towers collapse in real time and not realizing it. I remember thinking that anything was possible now that they had attacked New York and the Pentagon. I was so mesmerized by the events that I could not move from my TV for close to 12 hours non-stop. I went to bed around 4:00 in the morning.

That seems pretty clear and I am very confident about this memory. There is just one problem. I have another conflicting memory from the same day. I remember very well that I was at the Cohen family house on that day. I was watching the footage of the plane crashing on the second tower with the younger son (His Memory Be Blessed, he died a few years later) when Mrs Cohen arrived and told us to « stop watching this American movie and switch to the news, something happened ! ». This is a « funny » story that’s difficult to forget and I have been telling it many times.

So how can I explain the discrepancy between my memories ? I see 3 possible explanations:

1. I just forgot that between leaving the university and going back home, I went to the Cohen’s for some reason – I went there a lot in these days, and they did keep some of my furnitures when I moved a week or two later and had no room for them in my new place. At that time, they lived 5 minutes from the university and more or less on my way to Pisgat Zeev. That’s the most probable explanation. My sister probably called me when I was still at university, and when I watched TV at home, it was not the first time I saw the images contrary to what I remember.

2. I went to the Cohen after going back home. But it does not make a lot of sense, I can’t really imagine going out after starting to watch TV this day, and if I had to go to the Cohen for some reasons, I would have done it when leaving university.

3. It never happened. I heard the Cohen story from someone else and unconsciously made it mine. It happens. But I really remember many details including hearing Mrs Cohen from behind, or thinking « how can she think this is a movie, it does not look like a directed action scene for a film ».

And the plot thickens ! My old friend Michael Loeb came  home yesterday (Saturday afternoon) for the Shabbat meal. I asked him what he did remember of the day and his story slightly conflicts with mine: he remembers also being at university and that I called him to tell him about the planes. He remembers coming to my apartment to watch TV with me. He remembers telling me that it was Al Qaida because he just had been to a conference on terrorism a few days before. And he told me about the same « stop the movie and switch to the news » story he heard, but from his brother (who lives in Paris).

I must admit that after he spoke, I did start to remember that he indeed came home and stayed a little. Maybe he told me about Al Qaida but I am quite sure I knew it by myself. And regarding the movie-news story: it can be that it is a coincidence and many people had the same experience. It may be I got the story from him. But the truth is I told this story a lot of time and don’t remember him telling the same story about his brother. So it could be that he took it from me also. Maybe he even told it to his brother who later told him back as if it happened to him. Or he heard it from someone else I told it to, etc… Anything is possible.

At the end, I realize that I remember much less than I thought, and even what I do remember may not be very accurate. I have no way of knowing ever what really happened. That’s true for me, and for everybody. We know much less than we think. And that – we need to remember all the time.

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