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Memory study explains 1 reason to question eyewitness testimony

Movies capitalize on the image of a witness sitting on the stand, pointing at the defendant accused of a criminal offense and testifying that "It was him I saw [fill in the blank]" The defense attorney then stands up and shouts "Objection!" The image is powerful, but how accurate is it or the testimony? 

While the image above is often presented to incite a dramatic feeling, in a real criminal court in Louisiana there is a lot more to an eyewitness on the stand. A large part of the process involves cross-examination, when the defense attorney has a chance to ask his or her own questions about the eyewitness account to expose issues involving the reliability of the statement given. 

One way in which eyewitness testimony can be unreliable is through the faults of memory itself. Scientific studies have shown that our memories are often not as accurate as we may think they are. A recent study published in "Science" exposed the suceptibility of our minds to outside influences. 

The study used electric probes, photo-sensitive chemicals and even a simple miniature flashlight to target the hippocampus region of the brain to alter the experiences of mice. In fact, researchers say that the data shows that the mice became suceptible to false memories of fear. 

In past studies, mice would receive a shock at a specific spot in a maze. When allowed to roam free, the mice would then associate a fearful memory with that place in the maze, avoiding it. 

In this study, the mice were allowed to roam a new area free of any shock. Later, half of the mice were shocked while the memory cells associated with the new area were lit up with the tools mentioned above. These mice, then avoided the "new" area as they would have in the original studies: out of fear.

While humans have more cognitive capabilities, our memories are still very suceptible. Are we capable of making up memories that never existed? Have you ever had a dream you thought was real?

An attorney will point out any inconsistencies or factors that could make the eyewitness account unrealiable. Even in the dramatic scenario at the start of the post, showing a photo of a suspect can influence a witness's memory of the defendent being the one who committed the offense.  

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Memories can't always be trusted, neuroscience experiment shows," Melissa Healy, July 25, 2013

Meet Attorney Guillory

Attorney Joshua S. Guillory was born in Alexandria, Louisiana. Upon graduating high school from Alexandria Senior High, he enrolled in classes at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree. Josh was a member of Mu Kappa Tau, a national honor society for marketing majors, while attending... Read More

Joshua S. Guillory

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