Sunday, October 23, 2005

Mysteries of Memory

I have a book called Seven Sins of Memory by Daniel L. Schacter.  I haven't done more than skim it so far, but I fully intend to read it eventually. It's about the seven ways in which the memory can get things wrong:

7 Sins of Memory1. Transience - a weakening or loss of memory over time.  One example Schacter uses is that many people have forgotten by now how they learned of the O.J. verdict.

2. Absent-mindedess - the failure to record a memory because one is distracted or not paying attention. (e.g. "Where did I leave my keys?")

3. Blocking - the failure to remember some bit of information when you need it, even though you normally know it well.  ("What was the name of that guy...?")

4.  Misattribution - misremembering the source of a memory.  Did it really happen, did you only dream it, or did you see it on tv?

5. Suggestibility - the implanting of false memories through leading questions, hypnosis, etc.

6. Bias - the distortion of a memory, based on our current beliefs.

7. Persistence - remembering something we'd rather forget.

I'm not going to try to go into any more detail for now on Schacter's ideas.  Suffice it to say that memory is more subject to error, even in healthy adults, than we generally like to believe.

How did this come about?Take, for example, the story I told a couple of weeks ago about the time I met Harry Nilsson.  I said that John asked Nilsson several questions, and Harry signed this photo for him.  But John is certain that he never met the man.  He thinks that Kal and I went to that Beatlefest without him, and we asked questions and got the autograph on John's behalf.  Could be, could well be!  That's not how I remember it, but when I tried to tell the story after 23 1/2 years, I was aware that my memory of the incident was a bit vague.

But what about when the memory gets it right?  How does that come about?

When I wrote that entry about kids' books the other night, I remembered at least four different passages from the story of Billy making a lumpy cake and an ugly hat for his mother.  ("Then you will see and understand, that I am making something grand!")  I also remember that the cover was yellow.  And yet, I have no idea what the title could be, or who the author was.  Why is that?

Well, I have a theory.  (You're not surprised, are you?)  One aspect the the book that made an impression was the visual cues - the yellow cover, the illustration of the mother with the hat on her head, and another one of Billy dropping 20 eggs into the mixing bowl, shells and all.  ("Hmm.  Three eggs.  I'll use twenty for a bigger cake.")  More important, though, was the rhyme and the meter.  They tickled my memory, making a deep enough impression for the thing to stick.  Maybe there was no rhyming or wordplay in the title, so I didn't remember that.  Another book from the same publisher is the opposite case.  I remember the rhyming title, Mr. Pine's Mixed-Up Signs, but I don't remember the story at all.

Other things I remember after 40 years on the basis of rhyme and meter include:

  • The Syracuse Savings Bank jingle, Save More, Earn More.
  • A Halloween song, The Wobblin' Goblin
  • A kids' parody of the Byrne Dairy jingle: "Byrne Dairy Milk is mighty fine/Makes you look like Frankenstein!"
  • The first two lines from the Alphabet book I had when I was three.  And really, isn't that the point of a rhyming alphabet book, to make the letters and their sounds easy to remember?

Another memory is only half as old as the others, but still worth mentioning.  In one episode of Moonlighting, Dave and Maddy are trying to prevent an assassination at a diplomatic dinner.  Dave's rapid-fire exchange with the maitre d' quickly takes on Seussian features, including this line: "What kind of clothes do I suppose would be worn by a man with a mole on his nose?"

I  could probably find more examples, but you getthe idea.

Other trivial memories that have stuck with me seem to be based on my having learned from my mistakes.  No, I don't mean big, life-changing epiphanies.  I mean stuff like this:

  • The third time the Cat in the Hat wants the kids to watch him juggle, he's added another book to the act, so that he's now juggling three books instead of two or (originally) one.  This can be clearly seen in the illustration.  For months, perhaps years, I read him  saying, "I can hold up three books!" before someone (my brother Steve, probably) pointed out that the actual words on the page were, "I can hold up these books!"  I've long since forgotten the text of the rest of the book, but I still remember that the Cat really said, "I can hold up these books!"
  • From a seventh-grade Social Studies True or False quiz: "The Iroquois used nearly every part of the corn plant."  False.  The Iroquois used every part of the corn plant.  I got this wrong on the test, but I've remembered it ever since.
  • I've mentioned this one before, but I'll throw it in anyway.  From 8th grade Home Ec:  "Lettuce should be ______, not  ___, into bite-sized pieces."  I put the word "cut" in the first blank, and had nothing to put in the second one.  But ever since I got the test back, I've remembered that lettuce should be torn, not cut.

There are other ways odd trivia can get recorded, of course.  We studied memory in a unit with my high school AP Psychology teacher, Mr. Smith.  He showed a film in which an expert introduced himself as Bornstein, and gave a mnemonic to remember his name: the image of a baby in a beer mug.  30 years later, I still remember that.  I also remember that Jerry Bonerz of The Bob Newhart Show appeared in the same film, as a guy at a party who is trying desperately to remember a pretty girl's phone number long enough to track down a way to write it down.

And I remember one more thing from that class, aside from Mr. Smith claiming to drink 30 cups of coffee a day (or was it 20?).  A student walked in during class one day with a sheet from the principal's office, listing the day's absences.  This was a routine event, not worthy of notice - exceptthat on this particular occasion, the paper slid off the desk.  Mr. Smith pointed out that it was only the unusual circumstance of the paper leaving the desk that caused us to even notice the student had been in the room at all.  I would not now remember that there were sheets of paper delivered to teachers like that had the student not lost control of that one sheet on that one day.  Had Mr. Smith not mentioned it afterward, I still would have forgotten it - if I ever formed a memory of it at all.

"Have I told you this before? Am I going to tell it to you again?" - Merlin in The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White.

Actually, I think I have, but I can't quite remember...!


1 comment:

sakishler said...

Interesting stuff. I never forgot how to spell "allegiance" after it lost me a spelling bee in fifth grade.

By the way, I was in Advanced Shakepeare class in Eugene, Oregon, when a student shared the "Not Guilty" verdict. Our professor said "interesting," and then we took a break.

I have an amazingly detailed long-term memory, but sin #2. is the bane of my existence. :)