By Shana Palmieri, LCSW, September 14, 2021

The goal of Federal workplace investigations is to collect information in an objective manner through a series of techniques that provides information to uncover the ‘truth,’ allowing the agency to make appropriate decisions and actions. Unfortunately, the human mind and memory is tricky business. Since the 1960s, social scientists have produced numerous studies that demonstrate eye-witness testimony and memory are unreliable.

To make matters more complicated, memory is formed and stored differently in individuals under extreme stress from trauma. To conduct proper investigations, it is pertinent to understand the underpinnings of memory retrieval and have a toolkit of evidence-based techniques that will allow the investigator to obtain accurate, reliable information. [Editor’s note: Shana will be a presenter during FELTG’s upcoming Workplace Investigations Week (December 6-10) and will share guidance on interviewing witnesses who have experienced trauma, de-escalating emotionally charged interviews, and more during Conducting the Investigation, Part I on December 8.]

Memory includes three primary processes:

Encoding. Individuals receive information based on what they see (visual), hear (acoustic), and understand (semantic). The brain then encodes the information deemed important and lets go of what it considers less important information.

Storage. The brain takes these selected details and consolidates them into a memory in the brain based on the details selected from the encoding process combined with our current knowledge to reconstruct what we ‘think’ happened in the past.

Retrieval. Retrieval involves the recall of old memories to form a narrative of past events and our recollection of what we ‘think’ happened. People are only able to retrieve a portion of their actual memories, and these memories when retrieved are combined with additional memories, events, and beliefs that have occurred since the initial memory was consolidated.  What this means is that when we retrieve a memory, we are not retrieving the initial memory that was encoded and consolidated, instead we are retrieving a memory that has been reconstructed and changed over time.

Memory systems in humans are not like replaying a video or audio recording that gives us a play-by-play of the exact details that occurred. Rather, the human memory selects what it believes the key factors are to encode, then uses current beliefs to consolidate a narrative that changes over time. This creates problems for obtaining an objective account of what occurred in the past built on a memory-based interview.

Add in other complicating factors, such as trauma, to impact the functioning on the memory systems, and the interview process becomes more challenging. Due to the activation of the stress response system, memories are often fragmented. Additionally, the type of memories the brain decides to encode differ than that of individuals not under extreme stress. And, finally, individuals under extreme stress as a result of trauma often do not store memories in a chronological fashion, making the retrieval of the incident difficult for the purposes of an investigation.

Therefore, specific investigative tools and interview techniques need to be applied when working with individuals that are impacted from extreme stress or trauma.

These techniques allow investigators to ask questions in a way that aligns with the way individuals store, retrieve and process information, allowing for a more objective investigation. [email protected]

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