The Knowledge Project: Véronique Rivest on Wine

VéroniqueRivest

On this episode of The Knowledge Project, I talk about one of my favorite subjects with one of the most respected sommeliers in the world: Véronique Rivest.

After placing twice in the top 12 in 2007 and 2010, Véronique became the first woman to make the podium by taking second place at the world’s best sommelier competition in Tokyo in March 2013. She’s also the owner of Soif in Hull, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite wine bars.

On this episode we learn: how to taste (including an on-air tasting), tips and tricks for serving wine, the twenty minute rule, how to tell if a bottle has been corked, how to hone your sense of taste, how a sommelier looks at a wine list, and so much more.

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Listen

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Transcript:
A complete transcript is available for members.

Books Mentioned
The Wine Atlas from Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson

Henry Ford and the Actual Value of Education

“The object of education is not to fill a man’s mind with facts;
it is to teach him how to use his mind in thinking.”
— Henry Ford

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In his memoir My Life and Work, written in 1934, the brilliant (but flawed) Henry Ford offers perhaps the best definition you’ll find of the value of an education, and a useful warning against the mere accumulation of information for the sake of its accumulation. A  devotee of lifelong learning need not be a Jeopardy contestant, accumulating trivia to spit back as needed. In the Age of Google, that sort of knowledge is increasingly irrelevant.

A real life-long learner seeks to learn and apply the world’s best knowledge to create a more constructive and more useful life for themselves and those around them. And to do that, you have to learn how to think on your feet. The world does not offer up no-brainers every day; more frequently, we’re presented with a lot of grey options. Unless your studies are improving your ability to handle reality as it is and get a fair result, you’re probably wasting your time.

From Ford’s memoir:

An educated man is not one whose memory is trained to carry a few dates in history—he is one who can accomplish things. A man who cannot think is not an educated man however many college degrees he may have acquired. Thinking is the hardest work anyone can do—which is probably the reason why we have so few thinkers. There are two extremes to be avoided: one is the attitude of contempt toward education, the other is the tragic snobbery of assuming that marching through an educational system is a sure cure for ignorance and mediocrity. You cannot learn in any school what the world is going to do next year, but you can learn some of the things which the world has tried to do in former years, and where it failed and where it succeeded. If education consisted in warning the young student away from some of the false theories on which men have tried to build, so that he may be saved the loss of the time in finding out by bitter experience, its good would be unquestioned.

An education which consists of signposts indicating the failure and the fallacies of the past doubtless would be very useful. It is not education just to possess the theories of a lot of professors. Speculation is very interesting, and sometimes profitable, but it is not education. To be learned in science today is merely to be aware of a hundred theories that have not been proved. And not to know what those theories are is to be “uneducated,” “ignorant,” and so forth. If knowledge of guesses is learning, then one may become learned by the simple expedient of making his own guesses. And by the same token he can dub the rest of the world “ignorant” because it does not know what his guesses are.

But the best that education can do for a man is to put him in possession of his powers, give him control of the tools with which destiny has endowed him, and teach him how to think. The college renders its best service as an intellectual gymnasium, in which mental muscle is developed and the student strengthened to do what he can. To say, however, that mental gymnastics can be had only in college is not true, as every educator knows. A man’s real education begins after he has left school. True education is gained through the discipline of life.

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Men satisfy their minds more by finding out things for themselves than by heaping together the things which somebody else has found out. You can go out and gather knowledge all your life, and with all your gathering you will not catch up even with your own times. You may fill your head with all the “facts” of all the ages, and your head may be just an overloaded fact−box when you get through. The point is this: Great piles of knowledge in the head are not the same as mental activity. A man may be very learned and very useless. And then again, a man may be unlearned and very useful.

The object of education is not to fill a man’s mind with facts; it is to teach him how to use his mind in thinking. And it often happens that a man can think better if he is not hampered by the knowledge of the past.

“Thinking is the hardest work anyone can do—which is... why we have so few thinkers.” — Henry Ford Click To Tweet

Ford is probably wrong in his very last statement, study of the past is crucial to understand the human condition, but the sentiment offered in the rest of the piece should be read and re-read frequently.

This brings to mind a debate you’ll hear that almost all debaters get wrong: What’s more valuable, to be educated in the school of life, or in the school of books? Which is it?

It’s both!

This is what we call a false dichotomy. There is absolutely no reason to choose between the two. We’re all familiar with the algebra. If A and B have positive value, then A+B must be greater than A or B alone! You must learn from your life as it goes along, but since we have the option to augment that by studying the lives of others, why would we not take advantage? All it takes is the will and the attitude to study the successes and failures of history, add them to your own experience, and get an algebra-style A+B result.

So, resolve to use your studies to learn to think, to learn to handle the world better, to be more useful to those around you. Don’t worry about the facts and figures for their own sake. We don’t need another human encyclopedia.

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Still Interested? Check out all of Ford’s interesting memoir, or try reading up on what a broad education should contain. 

Daniel Dennett’s Most Useful Critical Thinking Tools

We recently discussed some wonderful mental tools from the great Richard Feynman. Let’s get some more good ones from another giant, Daniel Dennett.

Dennett is one of the great thinkers in the world; he’s been at the forefront of cognitive science and evolutionary science for over 50 years, trying to figure out how the mind works and why we believe the things we believe. He’s written a number of amazing books on evolution, religion, consciousness, and free will. (He’s also subject to some extreme criticism due to his atheist bent, as with Dawkins.)

His most recent book is the wise and insightful Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Critical Thinking, where he lays out a series of short essays (some very short — less than a page) with mental shortcuts, tools, analogies, and metaphors for thinking about a variety of topics, mostly those topics he is best known for.

Some people don’t like the disconnected nature of the book, but that’s precisely its usefulness: Like what we do here at Farnam Street, Dennett is simply trying to add tools to your toolkit. You are free to, in the words of Bruce Lee, “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.”

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The book opens with 12 of Dennett’s best “tools for critical thinking” — a bag of mental tricks to improve your ability to engage critically and rationally with the world.

Let’s go through a few of the best ones. You’ll be familiar with some and unfamiliar with others, agree with some and not with others. But if you adopt Bruce Lee’s advice, you should come away with something new and useful.

Making mistakes

Mistakes are not just opportunities for learning; they are, in an important sense, the only opportunity for learning or making something truly new. Before there can be learning, there must be learners. There are only two non-miraculous ways for learners to come into existence: they must either evolve or be designed and built by learners that evolved. Biological evolution proceeds by a grand, inexorable process of trial and error–and without the errors the trials wouldn’t accomplish anything. As Gore Vidal once said, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

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The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them–especially not from yourself. Instead of turning away in denial when you make a mistake, you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are. The fundamental reaction to any mistake ought to be this: “Well, I won’t do that again!”

“You should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes.” Click To Tweet

Reductio ad absurdum

The crowbar of rational inquiry, the great lever that enforces consistency, is reductio ad absurdum–literally, reduction (of the argument) to absurdity. You take the assertion or conjecture at issue and see if you can pry any contradictions (or just preposterous implications) out of it. If you can, that proposition has to be discarded or sent back to the shop for retooling. We do this all the time without bothering to display the underlying logic: “If that’s a bear, then bears have antlers!” or “He won’t get here in time for supper unless he can fly like Superman.”

Rapoport’s Rules

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent? […] The best antidote I know for [the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated by the social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament).

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything that you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Sturgeon’s Law

The science-fiction writer Ted Sturgeon, speaking at the World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia in September 1953, said,

When people talk about the mystery novel, they mentioned The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. When they talk about the western, they say there’s The Way West and Shane. But when they talk about science fiction, they call it “that Buck Rogers stuff,” and they say “ninety percent of science fiction is crud.” Well, they’re right. Ninety percent of science fiction is crud. But then ninety percent of everything is crud, and it’s the ten percent that isn’t crud that’s important, and the ten percent of science fiction that isn’t crud is as good as or better than anything being written anywhere.

This advice is often ignored by ideologues intent on destroying the reputation of analytic philosophy, evolutionary psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, macroeconomics, plastic surgery, improvisational theater, television sitcoms, philosophical theology, massage therapy, you name it. Let’s stipulate at the outset that there is a great deal of deplorable, stupid, second-rate stuff out there, of all sorts.

Occam’s Razor

Attributed to William of Ockham (or Occam), the fourteenth century logician and philosopher, this thinking tool is actually a much older rule of thumb. A Latin name for it is lex parsimoniae, the law of parsimony. It is usually put into English as the maxim “Do not muliply entities beyond necessary.” The idea is straightforward: Don’t concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you’ve got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well. If exposure to extremely cold air can account for all the symptoms of frostbite, don’t postulate unobserved “snow germs” or “arctic microbes.” Kepler’s laws explain the orbit of the planets; we have no need to hypothesize pilots guiding the planets from control panels hidden under the surface.

Occam’s Broom

The molecular biologist Sidney Brenner recently invented a delicious play on Occam’s Razor, introducing the new term Occam’s Broom, to describe the process in which inconvenient facts are whisked under the rug by intellectually dishonest champions of one theory or another. This is our first boom crutch, an anti-thinking tool, and you should keep your eyes peeled for it. The practice is particularly insidious when used by propagandists who direct their efforts at the lay public, because like Sherlock Holmes’ famous clue about the dog that didn’t bark in the night, the absence of a fact that has been swept off the scene by Occam’s Broom is unnoticeable except by experts. 

Jootsing

…It is even harder to achieve what Doug Hofstadter calls joosting, which stands for “jumping out of the system.” This is an important tactic not just in science and philosophy, but also in the arts. Creativity, that ardently sought but only rarely found virtue, often is a heretofore unimagined violation of the rules of the system from which it springs. It might be the system of classical harmony in music, the rules for meter and rhyme in sonnets (or limericks, even), or the canons of good taste or good form in some genre of art. Or it might be the assumptions and principles of some theory or research program. Being creative is not just a matter of casting about for something novel–anbody can do that, since novelty can be found in any random juxtaposition of stuff–but of making the novelty jump out of some system, a system that has become somewhat established, for good reasons.

When an artistic tradition reaches the point where literally “anything goes,” those who want to be creative have a problem: there are no fixed rules to rebel against, no complacent expectations to shatter, nothing to subvert, no background against which to create something that is both surprising and yet meaningful. It helps to know the tradition if you want to subvert it. That’s why so few dabblers or novices succeed in coming up with anything truly creative.

Rathering (Anti-thinking tool)

Rathering is a way of sliding you swiftly and gently past a false dichotomy. The general form of a rathering is “It is not the case that blahblahblah, as orthodoxy would have you believe; it is rather that suchandsuchandsuch–which is radically different.” Some ratherings are just fine; you really must choose between the two alternatives on offer; in these cases, you are not being offered a false, bur rather a genuine, inescapable dichotomy. But some ratherings are little more than sleight of hand, due to the fact that the word “rather” implies–without argument–that there is an important incompatibility between the claims flanking it.

The “Surely” Operator

When you’re reading or skimming argumentative essays, especially by philosophers, here is a quick trick that may save you much time and effort, especially in this age of simple searching by computer: look for “surely” in the document, and check each occurrence. Not always, not even most of the time, but often the world “surely” is as good as a blinking light in locating a weak point in the argument….Why? Because it marks the very edge of what the author is actually sure about and hopes readers will also be sure about. (If the author were really sure all the readers would agree, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning.)

The Deepity

A “deepity” is a proposition that seems both important and true–and profound–but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up on the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That’s a deepity.

Here is an example. (Better sit down: this is heavy stuff.)

Love is just a word.

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Richard Dawkins recently alerted me to a fine deepity by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who described his faith as a

silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of a question mark.

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Still Interested? Check out Dennett’s book for a lot more of these interesting tools for critical thinking, many non-intuitive. I guarantee you’ll generate food for thought as you go along. Also, try checking out 11 Rules for Critical Thinking and learn how to be Eager to be Wrong.

The Motivation Toolkit

It is rare that a book devotes almost half of itself to explaining the concrete implementation of its core ideas. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink includes a toolkit which he says, “is your guide to taking the ideas in this book and putting them into action.”

The toolkit covers ways to increase your motivation in the context of individuals, organizations, parents, educators, and even exercise.

Pink dedicates a section in the toolkit to Strategies for Awakening Your Motivation. There are a few great tips here that are worth highlighting.

The Motivation Toolkit

Give Yourself a ‘Flow Test’

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did more than discover the concept of flow. He also introduced an ingenious new technique to measure it. Csikszentmihalyi and his University of Chicago team equipped participants in their research studies with electronic pagers. Then they paged people at random intervals (approximately eight times a day) for a week, asking them to describe their mental state at that moment. Compared with previous methods, these real-time reports proved far more honest and revealing.

You can use Csikzentimihalyi’s methodological innovation in your own quest for mastery by giving yourself a ‘flow test.’ Set a reminder on your computer or mobile phone to go off at forty random times in a week. Each time your device beeps, write down what you’re doing, how you’re feeling, and whether you’re in ‘flow.’ Record your observations, look at the patterns, and consider the following questions:

  • Which moments produced feelings of ‘flow’? Where were you? What were you working on? Who were you with?
  • Are certain times of day more flow-friendly than others? How could you restructure your day based on your findings?
  • How might you increase the number of optimal experiences and reduce the moments when you felt disengaged or distracted?
  • If you’re having doubts about your job or career, what does this exercise tell you about your true source of intrinsic motivation?”

Just Say No – With a List

Most of us have a to-do list. But legendary management guru Tom Peters also has what he calls “to don’t” list – an inventory of behaviours and practices that sap his energy, divert his focus, and ought to be avoided. Follow his lead and each week craft your own agenda of avoidance. Staying motivated – directing your own life, making progress, and pursuing purpose – isn’t easy. So get rid of the unnecessary obligations, time-wasting distractions, and useless burdens that stand in your way. And the first step in bulldozing these obstacles is to enumerate them. As Peters puts it, “What you decide not to do is probably more important than what you decide to do.”

Stop-doing lists are not new. If you’re wondering what you should stop doing, here are 9 unproductive habits you can stop right now.

Move Five Steps Closer to Mastery

One key to mastery is what Florida State University psychology professor Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice – a ‘lifelong period of… effort to improve performance in a specific domain.’ Deliberate practice isn’t running a few miles each day or banging on the piano for twenty minutes each morning. It’s much more purposeful, focused, and, yes painful. Follow these steps – over and over again for a decade – and you just might become a master:

  • Remember that deliberate practise has one objective: to improve performance. ‘People who play tennis once a week for years don’t get any better if they do the same thing each time,’ Ericsson has said. ‘Deliberate practise is about changing your performance, setting new goals and straining yourself to reach a bit higher each time.’
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition matters. Basketball greats don’t shoot ten free throws at the end of team practise; they shoot five hundred.
  • Seek constant, critical feedback. If you don’t know how you’re doing, you won’t know what to improve.
  • Focus ruthlessly on where you need help. While many of us work on what we’re already good at, says Ericsson, ‘those who get better work on their weaknesses.’
  • Prepare for the process to be mentally and physically exhausting. That’s why so few people commit to it, but that’s why it works.

The toolkit also includes a summary of each chapter and even a ‘Drive Discussion Guide;’ a list of twenty questions designed to start a conversation and help you think more deeply about the concepts he has covered. These are some of the fundamentals of active reading and also remind us a bit of the Feynman technique for learning concepts more deeply.

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Still Curious? Follow up with eight ways to say no, Steve Jobs on focus, and the difference between successful people and very successful people.

The Farnam Street Members Summer 2016 Reading List

We recently asked our Members to recommend a single summer read, and why, and thought we might share some of their recommendations with you. Here are their choices and their reasoning:

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Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd

“I would add Different to the list – unique insight into marketing and strategy tactics that have worked in highly competitive industries.”

The Course of Love: A Novel

“I’m currently madly in love with Alain De Botton’s newest book, The Course of Love. It’s a novel with interludes of philosophy that have really helped me to understand relationships (of all kinds) and nurse a little more empathy for others.”

When Breath Becomes Air

Some of my favorite books act like a mirror and force me to examine my own life. When Breath Becomes Air is one of those. While there are sections in the book that are not well written, and some that seem out of place, you forgive that as a reader because you know the author passed away while writing the book. While, and after, reading the book, I kept on asking myself the most important questions: what do I want out of life? What is worth doing with my time? What is the right balance between achieving and spending time with loved ones?”

Manias, Panics, and Crashes

There is a reason why it has been in print since 1978.”

All I Want to Know is Where I’m Going to Die So I’ll Never Go There

Peter Bevelin’s new book is an interesting set of dialogues between A Seeker, the Librarian, Munger and Buffett.  I’m not finished yet but it’s an interesting construction of Buffett and Munger’s wisdom. There are a few spots that are heavy on the adulation and a couple places that could have been better edited but on the whole I’m a fan.”

Paper Promises: Debt, Money, and the New World Order / The Last Vote: The Threats to Western Democracy

“I find two books from Philip Coggan who writes the Buttonwood column at The Economist very interesting and very topical in these days.”

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

“My choice would be Peak. Because it is by far the best book covering deliberate practice. Could be life changing to anyone new to the field.”

Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference

“It’s not the ‘best’ book out there (though it’s very far from the worst). It’s not the most enjoyable read. It’s not the top of the ‘page for page most full of wisdom’ list. But it *is* the one that, were everyone to read it, would have the best chance of making the world a better place (and quite possibly the collective lives of the individuals that read it too).”

Homo Faber

“A German classic not so well known in the english-speaking world about an engineer who is exposed to a number of freak events “fooled by randomness”-style which completely changes his intuition about probability.”

Peripheral Visions: Learning along the Way

“A really fantastic book based on Mary Catherine Bateson’s work in foreign cultures. Tough to describe in a nutshell, but the title comes from her encouragement to seek more answers from the periphery, versus what we often find in front of us. She talks a lot about lifelong learning and many of the values we’d talk about here. But it’s from a slightly different perspective, and we frankly don’t get enough women authors recommended.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

“I would recommend Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. A bit on the side of science/physics but a nice small read that simplifies the broad concepts in physics.”

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

“Really enjoyed The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly, a more balanced, even optimistic vision of the future than many are currently presenting. For example, Kevin isn’t worried about AI destroying all Human Life, he believes that in the same way that in the past we electrified existing Mechanical items, we will take those items again, and this time add AI to them.

Looking back from 2050 to today, we will marvel that the internet was ‘just getting started’, and that the internet we use today wasn’t really ‘The Internet’, for example in the future we will have Time Sliders, so taking a webcam in Time Square, you could rewind from 2050 to see the New Years’ celebration in 2035.

Balancing this is the admission that negatives such as Mass Surveillance aren’t going away, and that because of the network effect, cloud AI will be limited to a few large companies.

A great book for speculating about the future.”

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Want More? Try 5 books that just might change your life, or the list of books that have changed ours.

Is Our Faulty Memory Really So Bad?

“Though the behaviors…seem perverse, they reflect reliance on a type of navigation that serves the animals quite well in most situations.”
— Daniel Schacter

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The Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter has some brilliant insights into the human memory.

His wonderful book The Seven Sins of Memory presents the case that our memories fail us in regular, repeated, and predictable ways. We forget things we think we should know; we think we saw things we didn’t see; we can’t remember where we left our keys; we can’t remember _____’s name; we think Susan told us something that Steven did.

It’s easy to get a little down on our poor brains. Between cognitive biases, memory problems, emotional control, drug addiction, and brain disease, it’s natural to wonder how the hell our species has been so successful.

Not so fast. Schacter argues that we shouldn’t be so dismissive of the imperfect system we’ve been endowed with:

The very pervasiveness of memory’s imperfections, amply illustrated in the preceding pages, can easily lead to the conclusion that Mother Nature committed colossal blunders in burdening us with such a dysfunctional system. John Anderson, a cognitive psychologist at Carnegie-Mellon University, summarizes the prevailing perception that memory’s sins reflect poorly on its design: “over the years we have participated in many talks with artificial intelligence researchers about the prospects of using human models to guide the development of artificial intelligence programs. Invariably, the remark is made, “Well, of course, we would not want our system to have something so unreliable as human memory.”

It is tempting to agree with this characterization, especially if you’ve just wasted valuable time looking for misplaced keys, read the statistics on wrongful imprisonment resulting from eyewitness miscalculation, or woken up in the middle of the night persistently recalling a slip-up at work. But along with Anderson, I believe that this view is misguided: It is a mistake to conceive of the seven sins as design flaws that expose memory as a fundamentally defective system. To the contrary, I suggest that the seven sins are by-products of otherwise adaptive features of memory, a price we pay for processes and functions that serve us well in many respects.

Schacter starts by pointing out that all creatures have systems running on autopilot, which researchers love to exploit:

For instance, train a rat to navigate a maze to find a food reward at the end, and then place a pile of food halfway into the maze. The rat will run right past the pile of food as if it did not even exist, continuing to the end, where it seeks its just reward! Why not stop at the halfway point and enjoy the reward then? Hauser suggests that the rat is operating in this situation on the basis of “dead reckoning” — a method of navigating in which the animal keeps a literal record of where it has gone by constantly updating the speed, distance, and direction it has traveled.

A similarly comical error occurs when a pup is taken from a gerbil nest containing several other pups and is placed in a nearby cup. The mother searches for her lost baby, and while she is away, the nest is displaced a short distance. When the mother and lost pup return, she uses dead reckoning to head straight for the nest’s old location. Ignoring the screams and smells of the other pups just a short distance away, she searches for them at the old location. Hauser contends that the mother is driven by signals from her spatial system.

The reason for this bizarre behavior is that, in general, it works! Natural selection is pretty crafty and makes one simple value judgement: Does the thing provide a reproductive advantage to the individual (or group) or doesn’t it? In nature, a gerbil will rarely see its nest moved like that — it’s the artifice of the lab experiment that exposes the “auto-pilot” nature of the gerbil’s action.

It works the same way with us. The main thing to remember is that our mental systems are, by and large, working to our advantage. If we had memories that could recall all instances of the past with perfect precision, we’d be so inundated with information that we’d be paralyzed:

Consider the following experiment. Try to recall an episode from your life that involves a table. What do you remember, and how long did it take to come up with the memory? You probably had little difficult coming up with a specific incident — perhaps a conversation at the dinner table last night, or a discussion at the conference table this morning. Now imagine that the cue “table” brought forth all the memories that you have stored away involving a table. There are probably hundreds or thousands of such incidents. What if they all sprung to mind within seconds of considering the cue? A system that operated in this manner would likely result in mass confusion produced by an incessant coming to mind of numerous competing traces. It would be a bit like using an Internet search engine, typing in a word that has many matches in a worldwide data base, and then sorting through the thousands of entries that the query elicits. We wouldn’t want a memory system that produces this kind of data overload. Robert and Elizabeth Bjork have argued persuasively that the operation of inhibitory processes helps to protect us from such chaos.

The same goes for emotional experiences. We often lament that we take intensely emotional experiences hard; that we’re unable to shake the feeling certain situations imprint on us. PTSD is a particularly acute case of intense experience causing long-lasting mental harm. Yet this same system probably, on average, does us great good in survival:

Although intrusive recollections of trauma can be disabling, it is critically important that emotionally arousing experiences, which sometimes occur in response to life-threatening dangers, persist over time. The amygdala and related structures contribute to the persistence of such experiences by modulating memory formation, sometimes resulting in memories we wish we could forget. But this system boosts the likelihood that we will recall easily and quickly information about threatening or traumatic events whose recollection may one day be crucial for survival. Remembering life-threatening events persistently — where the incident occurred, who or what was responsible for it — boosts our chances of avoiding future recurrences.

Our brain has limitations, and with those limitations come trade-offs. One of the trade-offs our brain makes is to prioritize which information to hold on to, and which to let go of. It must do this — as stated above, we’d be overloaded with information without this ability. The brain has evolved to prioritize information which is:

  1. Used frequently
  2. Used recently
  3. Likely to be needed

Thus, we do forget things. The phenomenon of eyewitness testimony being unreliable can at least partially be explained by the fact that, when the event occurred, the witness probably did not know they’d need to remember it. There was no reason, in the moment, for that information to make an imprint. We have trouble recalling details of things that have not imprinted very deeply.

There are cases where people do have elements of what might seem like a “more optimal system” of memory, and generally they do not function well in the real world. Schacter gives us two in his book. The first is the famous mnemonist Shereshevski:

But what if all events were registered in elaborate detail, regardless of the level or type of processing to which they were subjected? The result would be a potentially overwhelming clutter of useless details, as happened in the famous case of the mnemonist Shereshevski. Described by Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, who studied him for years, Shereshevski formed and retained highly detailed memories of virtually everything that happened to him — both the important and the trivial. Yet he was unable to function at an abstract level because he was inundated with unimportant details of his experiences — details that are best denied entry to the system in the first place. An elaboration-dependent system ensures that only those events that are important enough to warrant extensive encoding have a high likelihood of subsequent recollection.

The other case comes from more severely autistic individuals. When tested, autistic individuals make less conflagrations of the type that normally functioning individuals make, less mistaking that we heard sweet when we actually heard candy, or stool when we actually heard chair. These little misattributions are our brain working as it should, remembering the “gist” of things when the literal thing isn’t terribly important.

One symptom of autism is difficulty “generalizing” the way others are able to; difficulty developing the “gist” of situations and categories that, generally speaking, is highly helpful to a normally functioning individual. Instead, autism can cause many to take things extremely literally, and to have a great memory for rote factual information. (Picture Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man.) The trade is probably not desirable for most people — our system tends to serve us pretty well on the whole.

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There’s at least one other way our system “saves us from ourselves” on average — our overestimation of self. Social psychologists love to demonstrate cases where humans overestimate their ability to drive, invest, make love, and so on. It even has a (correct) name: Overconfidence.

Yet without some measure of “overconfidence,” most of us would be quite depressed. In fact, when depressed individuals are studied, their tendency towards extreme realism is one thing frequently found:

On the face of it, these biases would appear to loosen our grasp on reality and thus represent a worrisome, even dangerous tendency. After all, good mental health is usually associated with accurate perceptions of reality, whereas mental disorders and madness are associated with distorted perceptions of reality.

But as the social psychologist Shelley Taylor has argued in her work on “positive illusions,” overly optimistic views of the self appear to promote mental health rather than undermine it. Far from functioning in an impaired or suboptimal manner, people who are most susceptible to positive illusions generally do well in many aspects of their lives. Depressed patients, in contrast, tend to lack the positive illusions that are characteristic of non-depressed individuals.

Remembering the past in an overly positive manner may encourage us to meet new challenges by promoting an overly optimistic view of the future, whereas remembering the past more accurately or negatively can leave us discouraged. Clearly there must be limits to such effects, because wildly distorted optimistic biases would eventually lead to trouble. But as Taylor points out, positive illusions are generally mild and are important contributors to our sense of well-being. To the extent memory bias promotes satisfaction with our lives, it can be considered an adaptive component of the cognitive system.

So here’s to the human brain: Flawed, certainly, but we must not forget that it does a pretty good job of getting us through the day alive and (mostly) well.

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Still Interested? Check out Daniel Schacter’s fabulous The Seven Sins of Memory.