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  • Mark Brafield


The TV series, 'Quiz' has been captivating television this week, reminding us of the story of the 'coughing Major' and how he won one million pounds on 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire' in 2001.

For those of us old enough to remember the original, it is fascinating to re-visit the story, and to see how it differs from our recollection. It has also been a useful, if sobering, reminder of how our memories play tricks with us and how we can be swayed by the behaviour of our group.

To begin with, most of us think that we saw the original show at the time, whereas in fact it was never aired during that series. It was only aired subsequently in Martin Bashir's documentary about the story which, confusingly, was screened at the same time as the trial (April 2003).

The video, and trial itself, also showed up another of our characteristic behaviours; when asked to focus on coughs, we are incapable of noticing anything else. More particularly, as the Ingrams's barrister pointed out, when asked to focus on coughs related to the quiz questions, we fail to notice the numerous other coughs that were completely random. And in a humorous moment of the trial, once someone starts to talk about coughing, it is very difficult to stop coughing yourself.

With my professional hat on as a lawyer, having seen the trial evidence, and having sat on a jury myself, I am far less certain of the Ingrams's guilt. In the absence of clear evidence of a conspiracy between them and Tecwen Whittock (as to which the television programme was artfully silent) it is hard to say that their guilt was beyond all doubt.

Their barrister - Sonia Woodley in the trial - reminded us of a great truth about memory which is only now being fully understood by the neuroscientists. Memory is not something we have, it is a process we do. Each time we 'remember' something, we do not extract a memory file from our internal filing cabinet, instead we re-create the complex neuro-scientific kaleidoscope of connections and neuro-transmitters that we believe existed at the time of the original incident. But - and here is the rub - that kaleidoscope is coloured by the emotions we are experiencing at that time. As Woodley brilliantly put it, each time you 'remember' something, what you are actually recalling is the last time you 'remembered' it.

And if - like some of my clients - you are haunted by memories that have dogged you for years, that realisation can be extraordinarily liberating.

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