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See Inside January/February 2012

Emotion Selectively Distorts Our Recollections

Feelings edit and sculpt memories



Photoillustration by Aaron Goodman; Robert Giroux/Getty Images (towers)

On September 11, 2001, Elizabeth A. Phelps stepped outside her apartment in lower Manhattan and noticed a man staring toward the World Trade Center, about two miles away. Looking up, “I just saw this big, burning hole,” Phelps recalls. The man told her that he had just seen a large airplane crash into one of the skyscrapers. Thinking it was a horrible accident, Phelps started walking to work, a few blocks away, for a 9 A.M. telephone meeting. By the time she reached her eighth-floor office at New York University, a second jet had struck the other tower, which collapsed after an hour. Later, she saw the remaining tower fall.

Like Phelps, many Americans have searing memories of that day. In your mind’s eye, you can probably relive the moment you first learned of the terrorist attacks: where you were, what you were doing, the shock or fear you experienced. Yet chances are that although they feel real and true, our memories of 9/11 are riddled with errors. “I remember all those details; I’m certain that I’m right,” says Phelps, a psychologist. “But the data suggest I’m not.”

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