Science in Fiction: Are Your Eyes Lying to You?


Understanding perception and memory processing are essential to not only eye witness testimony (e.g. mystery novels), but also to realistic point of view for all types of novels.  Knowing the strengths and weaknesses to memory and perception allows an author to more accurately portray how to write flashbacks and memories, among other types of scenes.



The first thing to consider is that how someone sees or remembers events will vary based upon a lot of factors, including:

  • Stress and Trauma
  • Bias and Prejudice
  • Life History
  • Physical Limitations (e.g. impairments to senses, biases in what sensory memory is stored better)
  • Point of View (e.g. where a person is positioned in perspective to events)

It is common knowledge that eye witness testimony is the single most unreliable source of evidence allowable in criminal investigations.  Yet such evidence is still allowed because we as humans inherently trust what we experience as gospel. This can create some pretty interesting dichotomies and potentially some complex and deep opportunities when writing.  It is common for police questioning witnesses to get widely varying descriptions of events and people involved. This is partially due to perception, and partially due to how the brain processes information to store in memory.

Stress and trauma can alter focus, leaving some elements in sharp focus while excluding others from notice entirely.  I remember after one car accident, my focus and concern was in all the wrong places.  My car had been totaled, but I was more concerned with finding my glasses or the fact that my camera had been damaged.  When the final report had been written up, I insisted I could drive my car home in spite of the fact that the bumper was hanging on by a thread.  It took the State Trooper and the tow trucker driver both to convince me I couldn’t.  I simply couldn’t process that in spite of the fact that the car was several feet shorter, it wasn’t still drivable.

Bias and prejudice create preconceptions of what to expect, thus coloring what we see.  This often creates in its most extreme cases what we call “belief perseverance,” where someone will continue to believe in something even after hard evidence has proven it false.  An example would be the belief that vaccinations are unsafe.  I have seen people reference studies with strong design bias (e.g. using autism websites to poll for the “vaccines cause autism” group of their study) or referencing lists of ingredients in vaccines as “harmful” even though they neither know the potential effects of said ingredients, nor does their source claim that any of those ingredients are dangerous.

In less severe instances, people will jump to conclusions about something without really processing all the information provided to them.  An example would be two people having a conversation geared toward long term race equality and how some systems geared toward those ends are often perpetuating the idea of racial differences and are sometimes abused (e.g. affirmative action).  When overheard, the person eavesdropping gets offended, calling the speaker racist.

Life history can also be in the same category as bias and prejudice, but is much broader.  We as people see everything through a filter of what we’ve experienced before.  This can be as simple as someone assuming their significant other is cheating on them simply because they worked late and they’ve been cheated on before.  Also, schooling, type of work, and family history play important roles.  Scientists are more likely to focus on facts, seeing things analytically and logically.  Someone who was a beauty queen might be more likely to notice more superficial details.  A cop is more likely to believe a person capable of a crime, expecting the worst in people.

When creating a character history and developing how they will interact with and view the world, keep digging deeper, either starting from the fact (e.g. cop, childhood abuse) or from the desired outcome (e.g. mistrusting, analytical, hopeful).  Keep thinking about what each means. Look not only for the traits your interested in, but also what might come along with it. For example, childhood abuse might make them distrustful, but also has other character traits that go along with it like being non-confrontational and skittish or even aggressive, which are, of course, polar opposites but very much effects of abuse.  Ask yourself what in your character’s life/personality will push them in one direction or the other).  Keep digging and going deeper and your characters will come out more real and three dimensional.

Physical limitations are among the things least likely to be utilized fully in a novel.  I, personally, love to include characters with sensory limitations.  I have hearing problems, and as such I don’t often remember things I hear, and I never remember anything I smell because I have almost no sense of smell.  Most of my memory is visual.  These impairments started at an early age so my brain simply isn’t wired that way.

Finally, point of view is essential.  Lighting and shadow, how sound bounces off surfaces, the way air currents from HVAC systems might cause a smell to be present in one portion of a room but not another.  These, among other things, all impact point of view. A person can literally experience an entirely different scene even if they are all experiencing it at the same time.  Think of the movie Vantage Point, which can be an interesting resource to think more thoroughly on how point of view can influence the writing of a scene.  Sometimes, I’ll hold back details in one POV, keeping it in mind for later use when switching to another POV.  This allows me to release information without dumping, and teases the reader, which is fun.


Memory Processing and Storage

Even after initial perception, how memory is processed and stored also impacts how something should be written.  Trauma can cause holes in memory on top of the perception issues already mentioned.  What’s more, how a person’s brain is wired always impacts how they’ll store their memory.  Just like the fact that there are a lot of different ways of learning, of training someone, the same holds true for everything we store to memory.

Some are going to remember better the tactile (what they do), others what they see or hear.  For those without sensory issues, smell often is very effective in memory retrieval.

Men and women tend to have slightly different recall strategies, with women having more balanced and efficient strategies.  Women tend to have better short term memory with more ability to multitask while men function better in subcategories of short term memory like the relationship of objects in space.  In general, women excel in remembering words while men excel in remembering images. This probably explains a lot of the jokes about women throwing back every word a man has ever said in his face during an argument.

But here’s where things get really interesting, every time you recall a memory, that memory gets overwritten.  It’s sort of like if you open a Word document and Word automatically saves it, overwriting the original.  If you accidentally deleted or made a change you hadn’t intended to, it doesn’t matter, the original doesn’t exist anymore.  The same holds true for memory and is an area for caution.  Often going over events over and over again can actually cause minute changes to the memory until the original memory is unrecognizable.

Basically, the circumstances surrounding remembering the memory impact the memory itself for the next time it is retrieved.  For eye witness testimony, this means the original testimony is most accurate. And that it is perfectly possible for unscrupulous police officers or DAs to manipulate a witness into seeing something differently.  I suspect that the Duke Rape case might be an example of this.  The “victim” changed her story over and over and over again, most likely at least partially from drug use or some psychosis. Experts believe she honestly believed it every time, which is why she was never brought up on charges for bringing up false allegations.

In my own personal experience, I had a memory of visiting a lake with my parents, aunt and uncle one time.  I remember walking a trail along the edge of the lake, remember taking a small boat.  I remember the trees, even down to the species.  Then, some time in my teens, I mentioned it to my parents in passing.  They were dumbfounded.  It had never happened.  What turned out was that I’d had a persistent dream.  I rarely remember my dreams when I wake, but I’d had the dream so frequently with such perfect replication that my brain tricked itself into storing it as a proper memory.

Another alarming fact about memory processing is how the brain fills in the blanks.  Like with those programs intended toward eliminating pixelation in low resolution images, your brain will actually make educated guesses when insufficient information is available and store it as memory.  My brain does this all the time because I have dyslexia.  It uses context clues to fill in the blanks when a sentence doesn’t initially make sense.  Very good for language, very bad for math.  For this reason, I’ve never gotten a 100% on a math test in my life. I couldn’t double check my work same day, and often received the tests back with numbers that came out of nowhere.

Even those without learning disabilities do the same thing.  You tend to focus on a select few items, maybe the color of a person’s shirt, a glaring scar on their cheek, someone’s body odor.  Your brain interpolates information (filling in the blanks) with the most likely information (often, what you would expect to experience).  By this same thread, it is illogical for a person to catalog every trait of someone they meet in a single paragraph.  People don’t process information that way.

If a woman finds a man appealing, she might find her gaze wandering to his crotch or thinking his eyes are dreamy or that she just wants to run her fingers through his hair.  In that moment, most of the rest of the details are going to be overlooked, probably to be processed at a later date.  It is also bad form to info dump an entire description of a person in a single paragraph.  And almost nobody cares.  Me, personally, I completely skip over character descriptions most of the time unless, of course, it actually has a role in the story (see my examples earlier in this paragraph).


Well, this ended up being a really lengthy article.  I hope you find it useful, and I hope that if you have additional insight, that you post it in the comments to share with those reading.

Do you have scientific questions you would like answered?  Let me know and I’ll be happy to answer.

Discover more from Danielle Forrest | Sci-Fi Romance Author

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