Serial is a narrative of memory

Almost all personal interaction in Serial is between Sarah Koenig and the person she’s interviewing. But there are other, more subtle personal interactions taking place throughout; each person being interviewed is engaging in a dialogue with their own memory.

Serial is ultimately about memory; with no forensic evidence, the conviction rested on individual testimony and how the jury determined they supported either Adnan’s version of events or Jay’s. When originally interviewed by the police, and again at the trial, people were interacting with their memory to tell their version of events. But memory isn’t a black box. We don’t record every moment on our lives and store it forever, there for recalling if we could only somehow access it.

This study into our memory of events shows that it’s a three stage process, perception, storage and retrieval, and at each stage there is possibility for omission and misinterpretation. They describe the experiment as follows:

In this case the important action took place when they were least expecting it. The 10 volunteers were put through days of memory tests in a studio and assumed this was the research. In fact, two intricately planned and elaborate mock crimes – a fatal stabbing and an armed robbery – were really what mattered.

On one day the participants went for lunch in a local pub, which was really filled with actors, stuntmen and 10 hidden cameras. A fight broke out and someone appeared to be stabbed and killed. The whole scenario unfolded over 20 minutes.

One volunteer, who was adamant they hand’t seen the crime, had actually staring at it for almost the entire duration.

Additionally, our memories can be altered over time. Researchers are looking into ways that a traumatic memory can be altered through manipulating the circumstances under which it’s recalled. Recall a traumatic event often enough and it will start to become more traumatic with each recall. Through controlling a patients environment and having them recall the event, researchers are able to reduce the sense of trauma associated with it.

Our memories are malleable and, as the research referred to here from 1994 and 2002 shows, we can even recall memories of events that never happened, given the right stimuli.

Clearly nothing so extreme occurred to anyone who was questioned about the murder of Hae Min Lee, but subtler combinations of these effects could. Events that we innocuous at the time are given meaning when recalled in the context of a police investigation. Minor details of a specific day weren’t registered, so memory fills the gap.

Serial will probably never uncover exactly what happened on that day. The only person who knows most of the details is the person who murdered Hae but, whoever they are, they’re either lying or have never spoken about it. The rest of the truth, the fragments that could be piece together from testimony, simply don’t make up the whole.

As fascinating as it is, Serial is trying to piece together ancient pieces of pottery as they’re unearthed, but those pieces are worn, misshapen and incomplete.

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