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Where'd We Leave That Darn Fact?
Probably Somewhere Behind a Neuron, and All Too Often Under Oath

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 11, 2007

Ever wonder why we remember what we remember? Why we recall some things and draw a blank on others? A lot of times, we forget the tiny things: where we tossed our house keys, where we parked the car, the names of the next-door neighbors, our umpteen computer passwords. Occasionally, we forget the huge ones: our wedding anniversary, where we hid the bearer bond, our heart medicine.

"The true art of memory," Samuel Johnson said, "is the art of attention."

The words resonate as the perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby unfolds. "This is a case about memory," Libby's attorney Ted Wells said in his opening argument. "It's about recollection."

Wells will probably emphasize that notion when the defense presents its case beginning tomorrow.

Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, told the jury: "This is not a case about bad memory. This is not a case about forgetfulness."

This, Fitzgerald said, is about the fact that Libby lied.

Is Libby -- a man with enough discipline and organizational skills to be Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff -- a liar? Or is he as forgetful as he says he is?

"You will learn from employees who worked with Mr. Libby, that Mr. Libby was known in the office as having a bad memory," Wells told the court. "It was known. It was common. He was smart as hell, but he did not have a good memory."

Libby says he remembers some things vividly. Others he says he forgets. And still others -- like learning from Cheney that Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency -- Libby says he remembered, then forgot, then remembered again.

How would that work?

* * *

First, a lesson in how memory works from Michael Ullman, a neuroscientist at Georgetown University. What we think of as human memory, Ullman says, is actually declarative memory. (There are other types, such as procedural memory, which we use when riding a bike.) Within declarative memory, there are two subsets: semantic memory and episodic memory.

Semantic memory helps us recite the multiplication tables. Episodic memory is more personal. The duct tape is in the hall closet, sweetie!

A memory passes through several stages, including perception, storage and retrieval.

Information is taken into the brain through the senses. It is stored in or near the hippocampus for a few years, Ullman says, then it resides in the neocortex. The hippocampus, a Greek word for a mythical seahorse, is a portion of the limbic system in the middle of the brain. If the hippocampus is damaged -- by stress, trauma or lack of oxygen -- short-term memories may be harmed. The neocortex is the outside part of the brain. As we get older, memories are harder to find on those cortex shelves.

Why do we remember some things and forget others?

Paying attention, says Ullman -- echoing Dr. Johnson -- is the best method of remembering. Frequency helps. For example, if you hear a word often enough, you learn it. And if a piece of information fits neatly into your worldview, he says, it's easier to recall.

If a memory "has significance to us," says Otto H. MacLin, a psychology professor at the University of Northern Iowa, who studies memory and the law, "we tend to remember it better."

George C. Leal, a commercial litigator in San Francisco, was in town recently observing the Libby trial from the back of the courtroom. "What is locked into the cerebral cortex of a witness is sometimes the best evidence and only evidence available to prove a point," he says. Strength of memory "is directly tied to the level of importance to the person who is doing the remembering."

Not paying attention can be humiliating. We ask someone about her father only to be reminded that he died several years ago. And we were at the funeral. We have to be introduced to the same person every time we meet them. The vice president tells us something and we forget it. But we remember distinctly what Tim Russert of NBC's "Meet the Press" tells us.

Why do we embellish memories?

Memory is a malleable thing. We have all strata of memories -- good, bad, vivid, vague, distinct, distant. There are those who believe that some memories are repressed and recovered; others believe that those memories are imagined.

Memory, according to Oscar Wilde, "is the diary that we all carry about with us." And our memories are just that -- ours.

Authors of memoirs have made millions. Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and Elizabeth Kim's "Ten Thousand Sorrows" were challenged as being factually imprecise. Imprecision, however, seems different from James Frey's "A Million Pieces," based on his remembrances of the lowlife. After selling several million copies he admitted he had made up large parts of it. Some embellishment of memory is a natural desire. To make a better story and, memory researchers say, to fill in blanks.

Elizabeth F. Loftus doesn't believe any of it.

"Human memory does not work like a video camera; memory is more selective," writes the professor of psychology at the University of California at Irvine. "The act of remembrance is reconstructive . . . human memory can change in dramatic and unexpected ways with time. Memory can be altered through the reconstructive process, unconsciously blending actual fragments of memory of the event with information provided during the memory retrieval process."

Her specialty is the murkiness of memory. Her super-specialty is explaining how memory works -- and doesn't work -- to juries. She has appeared as an expert witness in more than 200 cases. Loftus was called in by Libby's defense team to speak to the court about the vagaries of memory. Fitzgerald cast doubt on Loftus's own memory through questioning.

"If you are having lots of conversations with similar kinds of people, lots of politicians and reporters, lots of interaction with media," says Loftus, "it can be very difficult for even the most intelligent person to know which detail you received from which source."

Loftus says that memories are fungible. She has even proposed that the oath "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" be amended to read: "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth or whatever it is you think you can remember?"

"True memories," Loftus writes, "cannot be distinguished from false without corroboration."

So how do we improve our memories?

That corroboration, Loftus says, can be notes or photos or other memory helpers. They trigger associations, then recollections. Often our memories are even reshaped by these things. If we look at the same photo of us on a tricycle enough times, we may come to believe we actually remember the feel of the wind and the sun on that long ago day.

In the Libby courtroom, handwritten notes from Cheney to Libby and from Libby to himself were entered as exhibits. So were e-mails, calendars, marginalia, statement drafts.

Wells says that Libby relies on his notes to assist his poor memory. "And the way he kept track of things," Wells told the court, "was with his notes, either with his notes and, in addition, notes of his staff. That's the only way he could juggle all of the things he was doing."

Maybe, if you believe in Loftus's arguments. Maybe not, if you don't.

And yet, perhaps nowhere on Earth except here are people dealing with such a broad spectrum of things to remember -- from misplaced gloves in the morning to a global warming conference in the afternoon, from remembering to put the cap on the toothpaste to raising the prime interest rate, from memorizing the security code at the mudroom door to knowing the ignition sequence on the nuclear football. Did you remember to pick up milk at the 7-Eleven, honey, and did you drop off those presidential papers at the National Archives?

During one eye-opening episode in the Libby saga, jurors were told that Libby discussed critical information about Wilson while on a jet with his family on July 12, 2003. It was his son's birthday and as a treat, Libby arranged for the whole family to fly to Norfolk on Air Force Two with Cheney for the christening of the USS Ronald Reagan. On the flight, Cheney's former press secretary Cathie Martin testified that she was trying to get Libby to focus on media reports about the Wilson story.

A vast industry has arisen around the enhancement of memory. Pharmaceutical companies hope to soon offer memory pills that boost the activity of neurotransmitters. Gurus like Jerry Lucas and Harry Lorrayne have devised brain games to keep the memory in shape.

In the Libby courtroom, BlackBerrys abound. The court reporter asked Fitzgerald to slow down so his words could be recorded. Onlookers jot on newspapers and legal pads. Everybody uses mnemonic devices.

Why do we even have memories?

Memories save time and lives and cultures. They shape our past, our future, ourselves. The loss of memory can be an isolating feeling. Movies such as "Memento" and "The Bourne Identity" explore the frustrations of personal memory loss. Umberto Eco's 2005 novel, "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana," is about a book dealer who has forgotten everything but the books he has read.

"Memories," as Barbra Streisand sings it, "Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten every line?"

Or as the Andrew Lloyd Webber tune "Memory" goes, "I remember the time I knew what happiness was."

We are the sum of our memories. As individuals, as members of societies and nations. The remembering of tragedies and cataclysmic events, such as the Holocaust or 9/11, is essential to the identity of cultures.

Just as there are levels of memories stored in the brain, so are there levels of consequences when those memories are lost or misplaced. When a person loses the keys to his car, he is stranded. When a family doesn't pay a utility bill it is left in the dark. When a nation forgets the lessons of one quagmire of a war it may end up in another.

Does Washington have a memory?

Watching Libby's trial brings back foggy recollections of other famous Washington cases that hinged on a person's ability, or inability, to remember.

That of Dwight L. Chapin, for instance. Appointments secretary to President Nixon, Chapin was also the godfather of Nixon's "dirty tricks" campaign against other 1972 presidential contenders. Chapin hired Donald Segretti to oversee the foul deeds. Segretti was called before the Watergate grand jury and ratted out Chapin. When Chapin appeared before the grand jury in 1975, he was asked if he had ever given Segretti "any directions or instructions with respect to any single or particular candidate?"

"Not that I recall," Chapin replied. For that -- and another similar -- response, Chapin was found guilty of lying to the grand jury. The "faulty memory" defense did not work for him; he went to jail.

Then there was Edwin Meese III. In 1984, a special prosecutor investigated the financial dealings of Meese, counsel to President Reagan at the time. The prosecutor determined that Meese was lousy at keeping records and at remembering things, but that bad memory was not a crime. Meese was cleared of the allegations. He went on to become attorney general.

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