Memory Science Says We Should Trust James Comey's Written Testimony

More than his verbal one, actually.

Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla

Former FBI director James Comey testified on Thursday before Congress about his discussions with President Donald Trump.

Comey’s written testimony, released a day before, stoked intrigue, with Twitter bursting with memes and pundits discussing the novelistic nature of the seven-page bombshell, with Slate calling it “a pulpy, literary treat” and The Awl naming it “the best personal essay in years”.

The way Comey’s notes were written are especially insightful here for any one looking to understand Comey’s state of mind. His first meeting with the President was so shocking and extraordinary that Comey was compelled to write about it — notetaking isn’t par for the course for an FBI director — on a government-issued laptop in an SUV as it sped away from Trump Tower in New York. Not only was Comey disturbed by what transpired, but he was troubled enough to write about it.

What made him draft a memo?

“Circumstances first,” Comey testified Thursday, expressing his worry that the President “might lie”. When pushed to explain further what made him write his memory diary-style, he ticked off three bullet points: “I was alone with the president-elect; the subject matter; I was talking about matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility and that relate to the president elect personally … I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it really important to document.”

And those extraordinary circumstances might explain Comey’s level of honesty in his written testimony. Before testifying, Comey took an oath that he would tell only the truth and nothing but the truth — the standard prelude to any testimony. But there’s an argument to be made that Comey’s written testimony should be trusted more as an accurate depiction of the events that transpired between him and Trump — more so than his verbal testimony, however compelling it may be.

That’s because our brains are wired to take stories and twist them into narratives that deviate from the truth — particularly after something that might be considered an Event with a capital E, whether that is traumatic or not in its memorability.

In a 2014 article for the Harvard Business Review, psychoanalyst Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries discussed how the best way to process an emotionally turbulent event is to write it down.

What we get out of reflective writing, therefore, may be more explicit and analytic than what we get out of talking. Talking uses the part of the brain that seems to be more associated with what we think of as our unconscious mind and what we say may to a large extent be determined by habits of thought so deeply embedded that we are no longer aware of them. Our written judgments and interpretations, which engage more the conscious part of our brain, are likely be less formulaic and much more thoughtful than merely talking about it.

What de Vries touches on here is the fact that the talking and writing are two very different actions in understanding and memory of an event in our brains, as detailed in a 2015 paper in Psychological Science. Writing is a recent phenomenon in human history, but verbal communication is part and parcel of being human — which means it’s far more evolutionarily lodged than writing is. Studying individuals with aphasia — a disorder where either writing or speaking is impaired, but not both — cognitive scientists were able to induce the fact that speaking tumbles from the brain in a different way.

“Actually seeing people say one thing and — at the same time — write another is startling and surprising,” lead author Brenda Rapp of Johns Hopkins University told ScienceDaily.

“We don’t expect that we would produce different words in speech and writing. It’s as though there were two quasi-independent language systems in the brain.”

Comey felt as such during his testimony, when he told California Senator Dianne Feinstein that his impulse to scribble his thoughts down was driven by “a gut feeling … [driven by] the circumstances that I was alone with the subject matter and … my read of that person [Trump].” And that writing is potentially more accurate and honest than had he written those memos afterwards, when his mind might have intruded on his mental processing of his meetings and affected how his thoughts in writing would translate to his thoughts in speaking. They further insure that Comey’s speaking is held against his writing — and therefore, potentially, what might be argued as the most truthful account possible.

So the fact that Comey hunkered down in an FBI van and furiously typed away juicy entries with details like the grandfather clock in the Oval Office and the excruciatingly awkward play-by-play of a stare-down with the President means not only is Comey committing verbal vomit but also insuring that what he remembers stays as undisturbed by memory’s tumultuous forces as possible.

How the brain actually processes writing and speaking differently, however, is not exactly known. But there’s something to say about not only the immediacy of Comey’s writing — in an SUV that was whisking him away, in one instance — but also the fact that he had an “instinct” to record his romantic evening with the President, showcasing an underlying sense of trouble, disturbance, and enough fear to have the receipts should things turn south.

We all know that things did — and Comey’s gut of writing things down not only potentially changed the course of politics, but might provide valuable insight into how the human mind works.

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