Internationally renowned neuroscientist Anthony Wagner delivers inaugural Weaver Distinguished Lecture in Law and Neuroscience

Mar 24, 2023

Internationally renowned neuroscientist Anthony Wagner discussed his pioneering research on the cognitive neuroscience of memory encoding and retrieval in the inaugural Weaver Distinguished Lecture in Law and Neuroscience. Wagner is the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences at Stanford University, where he directs the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute.

Anthony Wagner

“I’m interested in studying how the mind builds memory and how the brain works to retrieve memory,” he said.

Wagner’s studies involved using functional MRI scans of the brain to test true and false memories. After detailing his research methodology, he discussed the implications of his findings for criminal convictions based primarily on eyewitness testimony. “We know that wrongful convictions occur,” he said, citing statistics indicating that 72 percent of wrongful convictions that were ultimately overturned involved misidentification by eyewitnesses.

Here are two key takeaways from his talk:

  • There is a strong correlation between an eyewitness’s high confidence that his or her memory is accurate and the accuracy of the person’s initial testimony — the very first time a witness is interviewed about their recollections or asked to identify suspects from photos or a line-up. “Reliability of eyewitness testimony is never higher than when first tested,” Wagner said. He recommended videotaping first interviews to preserve the most reliable testimony.
  • After the initial interview and particularly after multiple interviews, eyewitness testimony becomes significantly less reliable. Initial memories can be corrupted and yield false memories. “Eyewitness testimony is never lower than when it’s tested in court,” Wagner said. “The act of testing memory contaminates memory.”

Wagner was introduced by Owen Jones, who directs the Weaver Program in Law, Brain Sciences, and Behavior. He holds a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from Stanford University and joined the faculty of its Department of Psychology in 2003. His talk attracted an interdisciplinary audience of faculty and students from the Law School and the Department of Psychology.

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