In a recent interview in El País Semanal, Trinity College Dublin professor and psychiatrist Veronica O’Keane claimed that ‘to some extent all our memories are false’. This is quite a declaration - but one which in the day-to-day most of us recognise to contain a grain of truth. We remember things wrongly and sometimes we don’t remember them at all. At the very least, our memories are selective and subjective and this is enough to sow seeds of doubt when it comes to remembering the past.
Most of the time this doesn’t matter too much since in the normal run of things nothing much hangs on whether we’ve remembered events correctly or not. It’s mostly a matter of minor disputes and inconveniences.
But sometimes it matters a lot, such as in court cases, where the life chances of accusers and defendants can turn on whether events are remembered correctly or not. At this point O’Keane’s claim that ‘to some extent all our memories are false’ becomes severely problematic. She’s not saying that some of our memories are false some of the time but that they are all false all of the time, to some extent.
To some extent? To what extent, exactly? How are we supposed to calibrate her claim in the context of criminal justice where memory plays such a crucial role? Here is another recent article, in which Bob Dylan is accused of sexually abusing a 12-year-old in 1965. What would Professor O’Keane say if she was called to the witness stand by the defence?