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The Rashomon Effect
How do you know what's true?
A samurai is found dead in a quiet bamboo grove. One by one, the crime’s only known witnesses recount their version of the events that transpired. But as they each tell their tale, it becomes clear that every testimony is plausible, yet different. This is the premise of “In a Grove” , a short story published in the early 1920s. Though many know this tale of warring perspectives by a different name: Rashomon.
The Rashomon effect describes a situation in which individuals give significantly different but equally conceivable accounts of the same event. Often used to highlight the unreliability of eyewitnesses, the Rashomon effect usually occurs under two specific conditions. The first: there’s no evidence to verify what really happened. And the second: there’s pressure to achieve closure, often provided by an authority figure trying to identify the definitive truth.
But the Rashomon effect undermines the very idea of a singular, objective truth. Instead, each testimony takes on a truthful quality,and the audience is left doubting their convictions as they guess who ended the samurai’s life.
Some might find this frustrating because the plot subverts expectations of how mysteries usually end. But by refusing to provide a clear answer, these two artists capture the messiness and complexity of truth and human memory.
Neuroscientists have found that when we form a memory, our interpretation of visual information is influenced by our previous experiences and internal biases. Some of these biases are unique to individuals, but others are more universal.
The most important question the Rashomon effect raises is,
what is truth anyway?
Are there situations when an objective truth doesn’t exist?
Like most questions, these don’t have a definitive answer. But the enduring importance of the story suggests there may be value in embracing the ambiguity.