Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
In 1956 George Miller, a Princeton University psychologist, set out an important principle that you’ve probably heard of in a paper titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.”
Miller revived an observation made by Scottish Philosopher William Hamilton. After throwing marbles on a floor, “you will find it difficult to view at once more than six, or seven at most, without confusion.”
More items, however, Hamilton noted can be remembered when they are “chunked.”
In the fascinating book Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain's Potential, Richard Restak shows us how to improve the performance of our brain by improving the performance of our memory through better “chunking”.
One can remember long strings of numbers, letters, or words when they are reconstructed into meaningful patterns, also known as “memory pegs.”
One that is familiar to most of us concerns the position of the planets in relations to the sun, which is remembered by the mnemonic aid “My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas.” This sequence reminds us of the planetary order: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. (Before you ask, I haven’t abandoned Pluto just yet.)
Chunking is how a lot of inexplicable things happen with memory.
Consider Mozart’s memorization of the Miserere, written more than a century earlier by the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri.
In 1770, while in his early teens, Mozart visited the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel and heard this choral work performed on only two occasions. He then sat down and wrote out the entire score from memory. We know this because only three copies of the score existed at the time and its owner, the Vatican, forbade any publication. Thus, Mozart had no source for re-creating the score other than his own recall of the performances he had attended. Now that the score is freely available, Mozart’s accomplishment seems less remarkable. Musicians have told me that the Miserere is harmonically quite conventional for the period. Anyone who shared Mozart’s familiarity with similar musical forms would not find it a great challenge to chunk large parts of the work around these standard structures.
A further addition to the story comes from John Sloboda’s book The Musical Mind. “Mozart’s feat of memory does not involve inexplicable processes which set him apart from other musicians,” he writes. “Rather it distinguished him as someone whose superior knowledge and skill allow him to accomplish something rapidly and supremely confidently which most of us can do, albeit less efficiently, and on a smaller scale.”
The Memory Palace is a form of chunking, which propelled Joshua Foer to the world Memory Champion. The concept is believed to be first suggested by the Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos who suggested, as Restak tells us, “an imaginary walk through one’s own house or town square. At selected locations along the walk, Simonides would conjure up a vivid mental picture of the location to remind him of a point he wished to make in a speech.”
Basically link what you want to remember with a specific location you know well and a vivid image. Why a vivid image?
The reason comes from Ad Herennium, which dates to 82 B.C. The unknown author writes:
[O]rdinary things easily slip from the memory while the striking and the novel stay longer in the mind. We ought then to set up images that can adhere longest in memory. And we shall do so if we establish similitudes as striking as possible; if we set up images that are not many or vague but active; if we assign to them exceptional beauty or singular ugliness.
Restak also offers another, “complementary memory method (that) involves linking together dramatic and often bizarre images that represent the memorized material.”
In their book, (The Memory Book) Lorrayne and Lucas give several examples of the use of stark images to provide memory clues to overcome absentmindedness. For instance, if you want to be sure you don’t leave your umbrella at the office, they suggest the following “ridiculous” image: “As you arrive and put your umbrella away, associate it to the first thing you see or do as you’re leaving the office. If you ride in an elevator picture an umbrella operating it.”
The brain weaves together the right and left hemispheres into one total experience.
Visualization exercises strengthen the powers of the right hemisphere. And when you bring the left hemisphere into play, the integration between the hemispheres is enhanced.
Intensely studying art can increase the powers of visual perception, something that was well-known to the ancients, who used art to meditate, focus, and hopefully further their quest towards enlightenment.
Asian art, especially Tibetan Buddhist paintings, was created to enhance the powers of visual perception. Buddhist devotees intensely studied the paintings until they could envision the images down to the smallest detail. They believed this act of visualization and intense concentration cleansed and prepared their minds to assume the attributes and wisdom of the beings portrayed in the paintings.
Roberta Smith, a New York Times art critic, said of these Tibetan paintings, “These images are visual exercises of the highest order. Each time you look at them, you see and understand more. . . . They were often tools that helped develop the powers of meditation basic to enlightenment.”
Restak suggests you do the following exercise to improve your visual acuity by playing “visual chess.”
Most chess masters can manage a game of ‘mental chess’; some of the great masters of the past could play several opponents simultaneously while blindfolded. … Although it’s less demanding than blindfold chess, you’ll find it challenging.
Read into a tape recorder the first dozen moves of a famous chess match. My favorite is the game played in 1858 by American chess prodigy Paul Morphy against Duke Karl Brunswick and Count Isouard during an intermission in the royal box at the opera house in Paris. Whichever game you choose, read the moves slowly and distinctly with a five-second pause between each move. (For the first few efforts, you probably won’t have to read more than a dozen moves.) Then set up the chessboard and begin.
Turn on the tape recorder and mentally make the first move by white, followed by black’s response. Imagine the resulting position of the pieces on the board. Continue the moves until you experience a slight lack of clarity or doubt about the position of the pieces. Focus as keenly as possible. See the pieces in your mind. When you reach the point where you can’t image the board and the position of the pieces, open your eyes and move the pieces until you reach the position where you began to lose clarity. (The best arrangement of all is to have someone moving the pieces as you call out each move; thus, upon opening your eyes, you immediately encounter the exact position where your imaging faltered.) When you can once again establish a clear image of the position, close your eyes again and continue.
If you’re not into chess, you can accomplish the same thing by attempting to complete a crossword puzzle without resorting to pencil or pen.
As you come up with the correct words, visualize them on the grid and retain them in your memory. See how far you can get before you have to stop. Since this is a test of visualization rather than a test of your talent for solving crossword puzzles, have the solution readily at hand so you can mentally fill in the missing words and go on with visualizing.
These exercises are designed to prime the frontal lobes, which help with concentration and focus, the visual association areas, and the hippocampus and its attendant connections (which govern memory). Over time, disciplined practice can yield some very interesting and worthwhile improvements.
Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot goes on to explore 27 other ideas to improve your memory and the operation of your brain.
You probably know that Gutenberg invented the printing press. You probably know it was pretty important. You may have heard some stuff about everyone being able to finally read the Bible without a priest handy. But here's a point you might not be familiar with: The printing press changed why, and consequently what, we remember.
Before the printing press, memory was the main store of human knowledge. Scholars had to go to find books, often traveling around from one scriptoria to another. They couldn’t buy books. Individuals did not have libraries. The ability to remember was integral to the social accumulation of knowledge.
Thus, for centuries humans had built ways to remember out of pure necessity. Because knowledge wasn’t fixed, remembering content was the only way to access it. Things had to be known in a deep, accessible way as Elizabeth Eisenstein argues in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change:
As learning by reading took on new importance, the role played by mnemonic aids was diminished. Rhyme and cadence were no longer required to preserve certain formulas and recipes. The nature of the collective memory was transformed.
In the Church, for example, Eisenstein talks of a multimedia approach to remembering the bible. As a manuscript, it was not widely available, not even to many church representatives; the stories of the bible were often pictorially represented in the churches themselves. Use of images, both physically and mentally, was critical to storing knowledge in memory: they were used as a tool to allow one to create extensive “memory palaces” enabling the retention of knowledge.
Not only did printing eliminate many functions previously performed by stone figures over portals and stained glass in windows, but it also affected less tangible images by eliminating the need for placing figures and objects in imaginary niches located in memory theatres.
Thus, in an age before the printing press, bits of knowledge were associated with other bits of knowledge not because they complemented each other, or allowed for insights, but merely so they could be retained.
…the heavy reliance on memory training and speech arts, combined with the absence of uniform conventions for dating and placing [meant that] classical images were more likely to be placed in niches in ‘memory theatres’ than to be assigned a permanent location in a fixed past.
In our post on memory palaces, we used the analogy of a cow and a steak. To continue with the analogy used there, imagining that your partner asks you to pick up steak for dinner. To increase your chances of remembering the request, you envision a cow sitting on the front porch. When you mind-walk through your palace, you see this giant cow sitting there, perhaps waving at you (so unlike a cow!), causing you to think, ‘Why is that cow there–oh yeah, pick up steak for dinner’.
Before the printing press, it wasn’t just about picking up dinner. It was all of our knowledge. Euclid's Elements and Aristotle's Politics. The works of St. Augustine and Seneca. These works were shared most often orally, passing from memory to memory. Thus memory was not as much about remembering in the ages of scribes, as it was about preserving.
Consequently, knowledge was far less shared, and then only to those who could understand it and recall it.
To be preserved intact, techniques had to be entrusted to a select group of initiates who were instructed not only in special skills but also in the ‘mysteries’ associated with them. Special symbols, rituals, and incantations performed the necessary function of organizing data, laying out schedules, and preserving techniques in easily memorized forms.
Anyone who's played the game “Telephone” knows the problem: As knowledge is passed on, over and over, it gets transformed, sometimes distorted. This needed to be guarded against, and sometimes couldn't be. As there was no accessible reference library for knowledge, older texts were prized because they were closer to the originals.
Not only could more be learned from retrieving an early manuscript than from procuring a recent copy but the finding of lost texts was the chief means of achieving a breakthrough in almost any field.
Almost incomprehensible today, “Energies were expended on the retrieval of ancient texts because they held the promise of finding so much that still seemed new and untried.” Only by finding older texts could scholars hope to discover the original, unaltered sources of knowledge.
With the advent of the printing press, images and words became something else. Because they were now repeatable, they became fixed. No longer individual interpretations designed for memory access, they became part of the collective.
The effects of this were significant.
Difficulties engendered by diverse Greek and Arabic expressions, by medieval Latin abbreviations, by confusion between Roman letters and numbers, by neologisms, copyists’ errors and the like were so successfully overcome that modern scholars are frequently absent-minded about the limitations on progress in the mathematical sciences which scribal procedures imposed. … By the seventeenth century, Nature’s language was being emancipated from the old confusion of tongues. Diverse names for flora and fauna became less confusing when placed beneath identical pictures. Constellations and landmasses could be located without recourse to uncertain etymologies, once placed on uniform maps and globes. … The development of neutral pictorial and mathematical vocabularies made possible a large-scale pooling of talents for analyzing data, and led to the eventual achievement of a consensus that cut across all the old frontiers.
A key component of this was that apprentices and new scholars could consult books and didn’t have to exclusively rely on the memories of their superiors.
An updated technical literature enabled young men in certain fields of study to circumvent master-disciple relationships and to surpass their elders at the same time. Isaac Newton was still in his twenties when he mastered available mathematical treatises, beginning with Euclid and ending with an updated edition of Descartes. In climbing ‘on the shoulders of giants’ he was not re-enacting the experience of twelfth-century scholars for whom the retrieval of Euclid’s theorems had been a major feat.
Before the printing press, a scholar could spend his lifetime looking for a copy of Euclid’s Elements and never find them, thus having to rely on how the text was encoded in the memories of the scholars he encountered.
After the printing press, memory became less critical to knowledge. And knowledge became more widely dispersed as the reliance on memory being required for interpretation and understanding diminished. And with that, the collective power of the human mind was multiplied.
Most of us want to be smarter but have no idea how to go about improving our mental apparatus. We intuitively think that if we raised our IQ a few points that we'd be better off intellectually. This isn't necessarily the case. I know a lot of people with high IQs that make terribly stupid mistakes. The way around this is by improving not our IQ, but our overall cognition.
Cognition, argues Richard Restak, “refers to the ability of our brain to attend, identify, and act.” You can think of this as a melange of our moods, thoughts, decisions, inclinations and actions.
Included among the components of cognition are alertness, concentration, perceptual speed, learning, memory, problem solving, creativity, and mental endurance.
All of these components have two things in common. First, our efficacy at them depends on how well the brain is functioning relative to its capabilities. Second, this efficacy function can be improved with the right discipline and the right habits.
Restak convincingly argues that we can make our brains work better by “enhancing the components of cognition.” How we go about improving our brain performance, and thus cognition, is the subject of his book Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot.
Improving Our Cognitive Power
To improve the brain we need to exercise our cognitive powers. Most of us believe that physical exercise helps us feel better and live healthier; yet how many of us exercise our brain? As with our muscles and our bones, “the brain improves the more we challenge it.”
This is possible because the brain retains a high degree of plasticity; it changes in response to experience. If the experiences are rich and varied, the brain will develop a greater number of nerve cell connections. If the experiences are dull and infrequent, the connections will either never form or die off.
If we’re in stimulating and challenging environments, we increase the number of nerve cell connections. Our brain literally gets heavier, as the number of synapses (connections between neurons) increases. The key that many people miss here is “rich and varied.”
Memory is the most important cognitive function. Imagine if you lost your memory permanently: Would you still be you?
“We are,” Restak writes, “what we remember.” And poor memories are not limited to those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease. While some of us are genetically endowed with superlative memories, the rest of us need not fear.
Aristotle suggested that our mind was a wax tablet in a short book on memory, arguing that the passage of time fades the image unless we take steps to preserve it. He was right in ways he never knew; memory researchers know now that, like a wax tablet, our memory changes every time we access it, due to the plasticity Restak refers to. It can also be molded and improved, at least to a degree.
Long ago, the Greeks hit upon the same idea — mostly starting with Plato — that we don’t have to accept our natural memory. We can take steps to improve it.
Learning and Knowledge Acquisition
When we learn something new, we expand the complexity of our brain. We literally increase our brainpower.
[I]ncrease your memory and you increase your basic intelligence. … An increased memory leads to easier, quicker accessing of information, as well as greater opportunities for linkages and associations. And, basically, you are what you can remember.
Too many of us can’t remember these days, because we’ve outsourced our brain. One of the most common complaints at the neurologist's office for people over forty is poor memory. Luckily most of these people do not suffer from something neurological, but rather the cumulative effect of disuse — a graceful degradation of their memory.
Those who are not depressed (the commonest cause of subjective complaints of memory impairment) are simply experiencing the cumulative effect of decades of memory disuse. Part of this disuse is cultural. Most businesses and occupations seldom demand that their employees recite facts and figures purely from memory. In addition, in some quarters memory is even held in contempt. ‘He’s just parroting a lot of information he doesn’t really understand’ is a common put-down when people are enviously criticizing someone with a powerful memory. Of course, on some occasions, such criticisms are justified, particularly when brute recall occurs in the absence of understanding or context. But I’m not advocating brute recall. I’m suggesting that, starting now, you aim for a superpowered memory, a memory aimed at quicker, more accurate retrieval of information.
Prior to the printing press, we had to use our memories. Epics such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, were recited word-for-word. Today, however, we live in a different world, and we forget that these things were even possible. Information is everywhere. We need not remember anything thanks to technology. This helps and hinders the development of our memory.
[Y]ou should think of the technology of pens, paper, tape recorders, computers, and electronic diaries as an extension of the brain. Thanks to these aids, we can carry incredible amounts of information around with us. While this increase in readily available information is generally beneficial, there is also a downside. The storage and rapid retrieval of information from a computer also exerts a stunting effect on our brain’s memory capacities. But we can overcome this by working to improve our memory by aiming at the development and maintenance of a superpowered memory. In the process of improving our powers of recall, we will strengthen our brain circuits, starting at the hippocampus and extending to every other part of our brain.
Information is only as valuable as what it connects to. Echoing the latticework of mental models, Restek states:
Everything that we learn is stored in the brain within that vast, interlinking network. And everything within that network is potentially connected to everything else.
From this we can draw a reasonable conclusion: if you stop learning mental capacity declines.
That’s because of the weakening and eventual loss of brain networks. Such brain alterations don’t take place overnight, of course. But over a varying period of time, depending on your previous training and natural abilities, you’ll notice a gradual but steady decrease in your powers if you don’t nourish and enhance these networks.
The Better Network: Your Brain or the Internet
Networking is a fundamental operating principle of the human brain. All knowledge within the brain is based on networking. Thus, any one piece of information can be potentially linked with any other. Indeed, creativity can be thought of as the formation of novel and original linkages.
In his book, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and the Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the Internet, distills the importance of the brain forming connections.
A piece of information is really defined only by what it’s related to, and how it’s related. There really is little else to meaning. The structure is everything. There are billions of neurons in our brains, but what are neurons? Just cells. The brain has no knowledge until connections are made between neurons. All that we know, all that we are, comes from the way our neurons are connected.
Cognitive researchers now accept that it may not be the size of the human brain which gives it such unique abilities — other animals have large brains as well. Rather its our structure; the way our neurons are structured, arranged, and linked.
The more you learn, the more you can link. The more you can link, the more you increase the brain's capacity. And the more you increase the capacity of your brain the better able you’ll be to solve problems and make decisions quickly and correctly. This is real brainpower.
Restak argues that a basic insight about knowledge and intelligence is: “The existence of certain patterns, which underlie the diversity of the world around us and include our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.”
Intelligence enhancement therefore involves creating as many neuronal linkages as possible. But in order to do this we have to extricate ourselves from the confining and limiting idea that knowledge can be broken down into separate “disciplines” that bear little relation to one another.
This brings the entire range of ideas into play, rather than just silos of knowledge from human-created specialities. Charlie Munger and Richard Feynman would probably agree that such over-specialization can be quite limiting. As the old proverb goes, the frog in the well knows nothing of the ocean.
Charles Cameron, a game theorist, adds to this conversation:
The entire range of ideas can legitimately be brought into play: and this means not only that ideas from different disciplines can be juxtaposed, but also that ideas expressed in ‘languages’ as diverse as music, painting, sculpture, dance, mathematics and philosophy can be juxtaposed, without first being ‘translated’ into a common language.
Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot goes on to provide 28 suggestions and exercises for enhancing your brain's performance, a few of which we’ll cover in future posts.
“When information goes ‘in one ear and out the other,’
it’s often because it doesn’t have anything to stick to.”
— Joshua Foer
That’s a quote from the book Moonwalking with Einstein, the fascinating account of Joshua Foer’s journey investigating memory.
What starts as a routine piece of writing ends with his participation in the USA Memory Championships. While interviewing contestants for the article he was told that anyone could have a memory like these champions if they trained properly. Intrigued, Foer decided to give it a try.
The journey started by researching memory and its physical effects on the brain. Scientists had recently discovered that your brain is much like a muscle, and that making it work could make it grow by creating new pathways at a cellular level. Did that make the brains of these “mental athletes” physically different from yours or mine?
Foer found research where MRI was used to compare the memory specialists' brains to those of a control group. There was no difference between the brain structure of the two. However, during the act of memorizing, the regions of the brain which “lit up” were completely different.
Surprisingly, when the mental athletes were learning new information, they were engaging regions of the brain known to be involved in two specific tasks: visual memory and spatial navigation.
It turns out the mental athletes were purposefully converting the information they were memorizing into images, and then placing these images into a mentally constructed “palace” — thus the involvement of visual memory and spatial navigation.
Foer goes into great (and fascinating) detail regarding the science of memory (which we've covered some before). However, let's explore the specific techniques that Foer learned while studying the memory athletes.
The Memory Palace is a device that has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks, to help encode their memories for easy retrieval. This was a time before smart devices; if you wanted information at your fingertips you had to put that information in your head. You'd do it through a process the modern memory athletes call elaborative encoding.
The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you've seen before that you can’t possibly forget it.
The memory palace technique is about changing your memories into images placed in a familiar mental location. The idea is that you can mentally walk through your Palace looking at your memories to recall them.
They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imaginary, so long as there’s some semblance of order that links one locus to the next, and so long as they are intimately familiar.
The idea is to give your memories something to hang on to. We are pretty terrible at remembering things, especially when these memories float freely in our head. But our spatial memory is actually pretty decent and when we give our memories some needed structure, we provide that missing order and context. Creating a multi-sensory experience in your head is the other part of the trick.
‘Now, it’s very important to try to remember this image multisensorily.' The more associative hooks a new piece of information has, the more securely it gets embedded into the network of things you already know, and the more likely it is to remain in memory.
Try to animate your image so that you watch it move. Try to think of what it might smell like or feel like and make it as vivid as possible. This is you processing your image. Let’s look at a specific example to illustrate why this works.
Say your memory palace is your childhood home. Take a moment to conjure images and memories of that place. We are going to stick to the outside of the house. Mentally walk from the road to your front porch, try to remember as many details as possible.
Let’s imagine that your spouse has asked you to pick up a few steaks from the grocery store for dinner. Now put the steaks, exactly how they look in the grocery store, on your front porch.
Okay, now lets try to make the steaks into something more memorable. How about a cow sitting on your front porch, not like a cow would, like a person would. Let’s make them exaggeratedly chewing, but we’ll make it bubble gum instead of grass. Now the cow is periodically blowing gigantic bubbles, so big that you’re worried they might pop. Maybe think about what that bubble gum would smell like or the strange smell of a mixture of bubble gum and cow. What would the cow’s skin feel like? What would it feel like to have to pick bubble gum off of the cow's face?
Four hours from now when you leave work to head home you’ll remember you had to pick something up from the grocery store. When you take a trip to your memory palace, walk up the drive and gaze at your front porch. What do you think you are more likely to remember? The packaged steaks, that you see all the time? Or the gum chewing cow we created?
A professional memory athlete will put objects in multiple places within their palaces and have more than one palace in their repertoire. Some will even design their own fictional palaces in great detail, designed specifically as a place to hang memories.
The Memory Palace is a great way to recall a variety of things, but you will still hit a hard ceiling, and that ceiling conflicts with the Herculean amount of numbers some memory competitors can remember.
What's the trick? It turns out that there is a whole different tool just for recalling numbers.
In this system every two-digit number from 00 to 99 is processed into a single image of a person performing an action on an object.
The number 34 might be Frank Sinatra (a person) crooning (an action) into a microphone (an object). Likewise, 13 might be David Beckham kicking a soccer ball. The number 79 could be Superman flying with a cape. Any six-digit number, like say 34-13-79, can then be turned into a single image by combining the person from the first number with the action from the second and the object for the third – in this case, it would be Frank Sinatra kicking a cape.
As you can see this is still about storing very vivid and memorable images. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about Frank Sinatra kicking a cape before. It becomes a very powerful tool when you realize that you can use your ‘stock images’ as a sort of algorithm to generate a unique image for every number between 0 and 999,999.
You may look at PAO and think that it’s a very clever way to memorize numbers, a party trick, but not necessarily useful for most of us from day to day. Maybe true, but Foer shares a great insight into the residual effects of training your memory.
I’m convinced that remembering more is only the most obvious benefit of the many months I spent training my memory. What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice.
This reminds us of the importance of being mindful and paying attention to life. Foer takes it further, arguing that when we look at it critically, memory is a huge component of almost every aspect of our life.
How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory… Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are.
We are a culmination of our experiences, how we process this information and encode it into something meaningful is intrinsically tied to our memory. Understanding how it works and how to use tools or tricks to make it better is a worthy endeavour.
Foer’s personal account in Moonwalking with Einstein is a great starting point for your own mental journey. While you're waiting for that to arrive, start reading our four part series on our memory's advantages and weakness, starting here.
(Purchase a copy of the entire 3-part series in one sexy PDF for $3.99)
In the first two parts of our series on memory, we covered four major “sins” committed by our memories: Absent-Mindedness, Transience, Misattribution, and Blocking, using Daniel Schacter's The Seven Sins of Memory as our guide.
We're going to finish it off today with three other sins: Suggestibility, Bias, and Persistence, hopefully leaving us with a full understanding of our memory and where it fails us from time to time.
As its name suggests, the sin of suggestibility refers to our brain's tendency to misremember the source of memories:
Suggestibility in memory refers to an individual's tendency to incorporate misleading information from external sources — other people, written materials or pictures, even the media — into personal recollections. Suggestibility is closely related to misattribution in the sense that the conversion of suggestions into inaccurate memories must involve misattribution. However, misattribution often occurs in the absence of overt suggestion, making suggestibility a distinct sin of memory.
Suggestibility is such a difficult phenomenon because the memories we've pulled from outside sources seem as truly real as our own. Take the case of a “false veteran” which Schacter describes in the book:
On May 31, 2000, a front-page story in the New York Times described the baffling case of Edward Daly, a Korean War veteran who made up elaborate — but imaginary — stories about his battle exploits, including his involvement in a terrible massacre in which he had not actually participated. While weaving his delusional tale, Daly talked to veterans who had participated in the massacre and “reminded” them of his heroic deeds. His suggestions infiltrated their memories. “I know that Daly was there,” pleaded one veteran. “I know that. I know that.”
The key word here is infiltrated. This brings to mind the wonderful Christopher Nolan movie Inception, about a group of experts who seek to infiltrate the minds of sleeping targets in order to change their memories. The movie is fictional but there is a subtle reality to the idea: With enough work, an idea that is merely suggested to us in one context can seem like our own idea or our own memory.
Take suggestive questioning, a problem with criminal investigations. The investigator talks to an eyewitness and, hoping to jog their memory, asks a series of leading questions, arriving at the answer he was hoping for. But is it genuine? Not always.
Schacter describes a psychology experiment wherein participants see a video of a robbery and then are fed misleading suggestions about the robbery soon after, such as the idea that the victim of the robbery was wearing a white apron. Amazingly, even when people could recognize that the apron idea was merely suggested to them, many people still regurgitated the suggested idea!
Previous experiments had shown that suggestive questions produce memory distortion by creating source memory problems like those in the previous chapter: participants misattribute information presented only in suggestive questions about the original videotape. [The psychologist Philip] Higham's results provide an additional twist. He found that when people took a memory test just minutes after receiving the misleading question, and thus still correctly recalled that the “white apron” was suggested by the experimenter, they sometimes insisted nevertheless that the attendant wore a white apron in the video itself. In fact, they made this mistake just as often as people who took the memory test two days after receiving misleading suggestions, and who had more time to forget that the white apron was merely suggested. The findings testify to the power of misleading suggestions: they can create false memories of an event even when people recall that the misinformation was suggested.
The problem of overconfidence also plays a role in suggestion and memory errors. Take an experiment where subjects are shown a man entering a department store and then told he murdered a security guard. After being shown a photo lineup (which did not contain the gunman), some were told they chose correctly and some were told they chose incorrectly. Guess which group was more confident and trustful of their memories afterwards?
It was, of course, the group that received reinforcement. Not only were they more confident, but they felt they had better command of the details of the gunman's appearance, even though they were as wrong as the group that received no positive feedback. This has vast practical applications. (Consider a jury taking into account the testimony of a very confident eyewitness, reinforced by police with an agenda.)
One more interesting idea in reference to suggestibility: Like the DiCaprio-led clan in the movie Inception, psychologists have been able to successfully “implant” false memories of childhood in many subjects based merely on suggestion alone. This should make you think carefully about what you think you remember about the distant past:
[The psychologist Ira] Hyman asked college students about various childhood experiences that, according to their parents, had actually happened, and also asked about a false event that, their parents confirmed, had never happened. For instance, students were asked: “When you were five you were at the wedding reception of some friends of the family and you were running around with some other kids, when you bumped into the table and spilled the punch bowl on the parents of the bride.” Participants accurately remembered almost all of the true events, but initially reported no memory of the false events.
However, approximately 20 to 40 percent of participants in different experimental conditions eventually came to describe some memory of the false event in later interviews. In one experiment, more than half of the participants who produced false memories describe them as “clear” recollections that included specific details of the central even, such as remembering exactly where or how one spilled the punch. Just under half reported “partial” false memories, which included some details but no specific memory of the central event.
Thus is the “power of the suggestion.”
The Sin of Bias
The problem of bias will be familiar to regular readers. In some form or another, we're subject to mental biases every single day, most of which are benign, some of which are harmful, and most of which are not hard to understand. Biases specific to memory are so good to study because they're so easy and natural to fall into. Because we trust our memory so deeply, they often go unquestioned. But we might want to be careful:
The sin of bias refers to distorting influences of our present knowledge, beliefs, feelings on new experiences, or our later memories of them. In the stifling psychological climate of 1984, the Ministry of Truth used memory as a pawn in the service of party rule. Much in the same manner, biases in remembering past experiences reveal how memory can serve as a pawn for the ruling masters of our cognitive systems.
There are four biases we're subject to in this realm: Consistency and change bias, hindsight bias, egocentric bias, and stereotyping bias.
Consistency and Change Bias
The first is a consistency bias: We re-write our memories of the past based on how we feel in the present. In one experiment after another, this has undoubtedly been proven true. It's probably something of a coping mechanism: If we saw the past with complete accuracy, we might not be such happy individuals.
We often re-write the past so that it seems we've always felt like we feel now, that we always believed what we believe now:
This consistency bias has turned up in several different contexts. Recalling past experiences of pain, for instance, is powerfully influenced by current pain level. When patients afflicted by chronic pain are experiencing high levels of pain in the present, they are biased to recall similarly high levels of pain in the past; when present pain isn't so bad, past pain experiences seem more benign, too. Attitudes towards political and social issues also reflect consistency bias. People whose views on political issues have changed over time often recall incorrectly past attitudes as highly similar to present ones. In fact, memories of past political views are sometimes more closely related to present views than what they actually believed in the past.
Think about your stance five or ten years ago on some major issue like sentencing for drug-related crime. Can your recall specifically what you believed? For most people, they believe they have stayed consistent on the issue. But easily performed experiments show that a large percentage of people who think “all is the same” have actually changed their tune significantly over time. Such is the bias towards consistency.
This affects relationships fairly significantly: Schacter shows that our current feelings about our partner color our memories of our past feelings.
Consider a study that followed nearly four hundred Michigan couples through the first years of their marriage. In those couples who expressed growing unhappiness over the four years of the study, men mistakenly recalled the beginnings of their marriages as negative even though they said they were happy at the time. “Such biases can lead to a dangerous “downward spiral,” noted the researchers who conducted the study. “The worse your current view of your partner is, the worse your memories are, which only further confirms your negative attitudes.”
In other contexts, we sometimes lean in the other direction: We think things have changed more than they really have. We think the past was much better than it is today, or much worse than it is today.
Schacter discusses a twenty-year study done with a group of women between 1969 and 1989, assessing how they felt about their marriages throughout. Turns out, their recollections of the past were constantly on the move, but the false recollection did seem to serve a purpose: Keeping the marriage alive.
When reflecting back on the first ten years of their marriages, wives showed a change bias: They remembered their initial assessments as worse than they actually were. The bias made their present feelings seem an improvement by comparison, even though the wives actually felt more negatively ten years into the marriage than they had at the beginning. When they had been married for twenty years and reflected back on their second ten years of marriage, the women now showed a consistency bias: they mistakenly recalled that feelings from ten years earlier were similar to their present ones. In reality, however, they felt more negatively after twenty years of marriage than after ten. Both types of bias helped women cope with their marriages.
The purpose of all this is to reduce our cognitive dissonance: That mental discomfort we get when we have conflicting ideas. (“I need to stay married” / “My marriage isn't working” for example.)
We won't go into hindsight bias too extensively, because we have covered it before and the idea is familiar to most. Simply put, once we know the outcome of an event, our memory of the past is forever altered. As with consistency bias, we use the lens of the present to see the past. It's the idea that we “knew it all along” — when we really didn't.
A large part of hindsight bias has to do with the narrative fallacy and our own natural wiring in favor of causality. We really like to know why things happen, and when given a clear causal link in the present (Say, we hear our neighbor shot his wife because she cheated on him), the lens of hindsight does the rest (I always knew he was a bad guy!). In the process, we forget that we must not have thought he was such a bad guy, since we let him babysit our kids every weekend. That is hindsight bias. We're all subject to it unless we start examining our past with more detail or keeping a written record.
The egocentric bias is our tendency to see the past in such a way that we, the rememberer, look better than we really are or really should. We are not neutral observers of our own past, we are instead highly biased and motivated to see ourselves in a certain light.
The self's preeminent role in encoding and retrieval, combined with a powerful tendency for people to view themselves positively, creates fertile ground of memory biases that allow people to remember past experiences in a self-enhancing light. Consider, for example, college students who were led to believe that introversion is a desirable personality trait that predicts academic success, and then searched their memories for incidents in which they behaved in an introverted or extroverted manner. Compared with students who were led to believe that extroversion is a desirable trait, the introvert-success students more quickly generated memories in which they behaved like introverts than like extroverts. The memory search was biased by a desire to see the self positively, which led students to select past incidents containing the desired trait.
The egocentric bias occurs constantly and in almost any situation where it possibly can: It's similar to what's been called overconfidence in other arenas. We want to see ourselves in a positive light, and so we do. We mine our brain for evidence of our excellent qualities. We have positive maintaining illusions that keep our spirits up.
This is generally a good thing for our self-esteem, but as any divorced couple knows, it can also cause us to have a very skewed version of the past.
Bias from Stereotyping
In our series on the development of human personality, we discussed the idea of stereotyping as something human beings do constantly and automatically; the much-maligned concept is central to how we comprehend the world.
Stereotyping exists because it saves energy and space — it allows us to consolidate much of what we learn into categories with broadly accurate descriptions. As we learn new things, we either slot them into existing categories, create new categories, or slightly modify old categories (the one we like the least, because it requires the most work). This is no great insight.
But what is interesting is the degree to which stereotyping colors our memories themselves:
If I tell you that Julian, an artist, is creative, temperamental, generous, and fearless, you are more likely to recall the first two attributes, which fit the stereotype of an artist, than the latter two attributes, which do not. If I tell you that he is a skinhead, and list some of his characteristics, you're more likely to remember that he is rebellious and aggressive than that he is lucky and modest. This congruity bias is especially likely to occur when people hold strong stereotypes about a particular group. A person with strong racial prejudices, for example, would be more likely to remember stereotypical features of an African American's behavior than a less prejudiced person, and less likely to remember behaviors that don't fit the stereotype.
Not only that, but when things happen which contradict our expectations, we are capable of distorting the past in such a way to make it come in line. When we try to remember a tale after we know how it ends, we're more likely to distort the details of the story in such a way that the whole thing makes sense and fits our understanding of the world. This is related to the narrative fallacy and hindsight bias discussed above.
The final sin which Schacter discusses in his book is Persistence, the often difficult reality that some memories, especially negative ones, persist a lot longer than we wish. We're not going to cover it here, but suggest you check out the book in its entirety to get the scoop.
And with that, we're going to wrap up our series on the human memory. Take what you've learned, digest it, and then keep pushing deeper in your quest to understand human nature and the world around you.
(Purchase a copy of the entire 3-part series in one sexy PDF for $3.99)
In part one, we began a conversation about the trappings of the human memory, using Daniel Schacter's excellent The Seven Sins of Memory as our guide. (We've also covered some reasons why our memory is pretty darn good.) We covered transience — the loss of memory due to time — and absent-mindedness — memories that were never encoded at all or were not available when needed. Let's keep going with a couple more whoppers: Blocking and Misattribution.
Blocking is the phenomenon when something is indeed encoded in our memory and should be easily available in the given situation, but simply will not come to mind. We're most familiar with blocking as the always frustrating “It's on the tip of my tongue!”
Unsurprisingly, blocking occurs most frequently when it comes to names and indeed occurs more frequently as we get older:
Twenty-year-olds, forty-year-olds, and seventy-year-olds kept diaries for a month in which they recorded spontaneously occurring retrieval blocks that were accompanied by the “tip of the tongue” sensation. Blocking occurred occasionally for the names of objects (for example, algae) and abstract words (for example, idiomatic). In all three groups, however, blocking occurred most frequently for proper names, with more blocks for people than for other proper names such as countries or cities. Proper name blocks occurred more frequently in the seventy-year-olds than in either of the other two groups.
This is not the worst sin our memory commits — excepting the times when we forget an important person's name (which is admittedly not fun), blocking doesn't cause the terrible practical results some of the other memory issues cause. But the reason blocking occurs does tells us something interesting about memory, something we intuitively know from other domains: We have a hard time learning things by rote or by force. We prefer associations and connections to form strong, lasting, easily available memories.
Why are names blocked from us so frequently, even more than objects, places, descriptions, and other nouns? For example, Schacter mentions experiments in which researchers show that we more easily forget a man's name than his occupation…even if they're the same word! (Baker/baker or Potter/potter, for example.)
It's because relative to a descriptive noun like “baker,” which calls to mind all sorts of connotations, images, and associations, a person's name has very little attached to it. We have no easy associations to make — it doesn't tell us anything about the person or give us much to hang our hat on. It doesn't really help us form an image or impression. And so we basically remember it by rote, which doesn't always work that well.
Most models of name retrieval hold that activation of phonological representations [sound associations] occurs only after activation of conceptual and visual representations. This idea explains why people can often retrieve conceptual information about an object or person whom they cannot name, whereas the reverse does not occur. For example, diary studies indicate that people frequently recall a person's occupation without remembering his name, but no instances have been documented in which a name is recalled without any conceptual knowledge about the person. In experiments in which people named pictures of famous individuals, participants who failed to retrieve the name “Charlton Heston” could often recall that he was an actor. Thus, when you block on the name “John Baker” you may very well recall that he is an attorney who enjoys golf, but it is highly unlikely that you would recall Baker's name and fail to recall any of his personal attributes.
A person's name is the weakest piece of information we have about them in our people-information lexicon, and thus the least available at any time, and the most susceptible to not being available as needed. It gets worse if it's a name we haven't needed to recall frequently or recently, as we all can probably attest to. (This also applies to the other types of words we block on less frequently — objects, places, etc.)
The only real way to avoid blocking problems is to create stronger associations when we learn names, or even re-encode names we already know by increasing their salience with a vivid image, even a silly one. (If you ever meet anyone named Baker…you know what to do.)
But the most important idea here is that information gains salience in our brain based on what it brings to mind.
Whether or not blocking occurs in the sense implied by Freud's idea of repressed memories, Schacter is non-committal about — it seems the issue was not, at the time of writing, settled.
The memory sin of misattribution has fairly serious consequences. Misattribution happens all the time and is a peculiar memory sin where we do remember something, but that thing is wrong, or possibly not even our own memory at all:
Sometimes we remember events that never happened, misattributing speedy processing of incoming information or vivid images that spring to mind, to memories of past events that did not occur. Sometimes we recall correctly what happened, but misattribute it to the wrong time and place. And at other times misattribution operates in a different direction: we mistakenly credit a spontaneous image or thought to our own imagination, when in reality we are recalling it–without awareness–from something we read or heard.
The most familiar, but benign, experience we've all had with misattribution is the curious case of deja vu. As of the writing of his book, Schacter felt there was no convincing explanation for why deja vu occurs, but we know that the brain is capable of thinking it's recalling an event that happened previously, even if it hasn't.
In the case of deja vu, it's simply a bit of an annoyance. But the misattribution problem causes more serious problems elsewhere.
The major one is eyewitness testimony, which we now know is notoriously unreliable. It turns out that when eyewitnesses claim they “know what they saw!” it's unlikely they remember as well as they claim. It's not their fault and it's not a lie — you do think you recall the details of a situation perfectly well. But your brain is tricking you, just like deja vu. How bad is the eyewitness testimony problem? It used to be pretty bad.
…consider two facts. First, according to estimates made in the late 1980s, each year in the United States more than seventy-five thousand criminal trials were decided on the basis of eyewitness testimony. Second, a recent analysis of forty cases in which DNA evidence established the innocence of wrongly imprisoned individuals revealed that thirty-six of them (90 percent) involved mistaken eyewitness identification. There are no doubt other such mistakes that have not been rectified.
What happens is that, in any situation where our memory stores away information, it doesn't have the horsepower to do it with complete accuracy. There are just too many variables to sort through. So we remember the general aspects of what happened, and we remember some details, depending on how salient they were.
We recall that we met John, Jim, and Todd, who were all part of the sales team for John Deere. We might recall that John was the young one with glasses, Jim was the older bald one, and Todd talked the most. We might remember specific moments or details of the conversation which stuck out.
But we don't get it all perfectly, and if it was an unmemorable meeting, with the transience of time, we start to lose the details. The combination of the specifics and the details is a process called memory binding, and it's often the source of misattribution errors.
Let's say we remember for sure that we curled our hair this morning. All of our usual cues tell us that we did — our hair is curly, it's part of our morning routine, we remember thinking it needed to be done, etc. But…did we turn the curling iron off? We remember that we did, but is that yesterday's memory or today's?
This is a memory binding error. Our brain didn't sufficiently “link up” the curling event and the turning off of the curler, so we're left to wonder. This binding issue leads to other errors, like the memory conjunction error, where sometimes the binding process does occur, but it makes a mistake. We misattribute the strong familiarity:
Having met Mr. Wilson and Mr. Albert during your business meeting, you reply confidently the next day when an associate asks you the name of the company vice president: “Mr. Wilbert.” You remembered correctly pieces of the two surnames but mistakenly combined them into a new one. Cognitive psychologists have developed experimental procedures in which people exhibit precisely these kinds of erroneous conjunctions between features of different words, pictures, sentences, or even faces. Thus, having studied spaniel and varnish, people sometimes claim to remember Spanish.
What's happening is a misattribution. We know we saw the syllables Span- and –nish and our memory tells us we must have heard Spanish. But we didn't.
Back to the eyewitness testimony problem, what's happening is we're combining a general familiarity with a lack of specific recall, and our brain is recombining those into a misattribution. We recall a tall-ish man with some sort of facial hair, and then we're shown 6 men in a lineup, and one is tall-ish with facial hair, and our brain tells us that must be the guy. We make a relative judgment: Which person here is closest to what I think I saw? Unfortunately, like the Spanish/varnish issue, we never actually saw the person we've identified as the perp.
None of this occurs with much conscious involvement, of course. It's happening subconsciously, which is why good procedures are needed to overcome the problem. In the case of suspect lineups, the solution is to show the witness each suspect, one after another, and have them give a thumbs up or thumbs down immediately. This takes away the relative comparison and makes us consciously compare the suspect in front of us with our memory of the perpetrator.
The good thing about this error is that people can be encouraged to search their memory more carefully. But it's far from foolproof, even if we're getting a very strong indication that we remember something.
And what helps prevent us from making too many errors is something Schacter calls the distinctiveness heuristic. If a distinctive thing supposedly happened, we usually reason we'd have a good memory of it. And usually this is a very good heuristic to have. (Remember, salience always encourages memory formation.) As we discussed in Part One, a salient artifact gives us something to tie a memory to. If I meet someone wearing a bright rainbow-colored shirt, I'm a lot more likely to recall some details about them, simply because they stuck out.
As an aside, misattribution allows us one other interesting insight into the human brain: Our “people information” remembering is a specific, distinct module, one that can falter on its own, without harming any other modules. Schacter discusses a man with a delusion that many of the normal people around him were film stars. He even misattributed made-up famous-sounding names (like Sharon Sugar) to famous people, although he couldn't put his finger on who they were.
But the man did not falsely recognize other things. Made up cities or made up words did not trip up his brain in the strange way people did. This (and other data) tells us that our ability to recognize people is a distinct “module” our brain uses, supporting one of Judith Rich Harris's ideas about human personality that we've discussed: The “people information lexicon” we develop throughout our lives is a uniquely important module we use.
One final misattribution is something called cryptomnesia — essentially the opposite of deja vu. It's when we think we recognize something as new and novel even though we've seen it before. Accidental plagiarizing can even result from cryptomnesia. (Try telling that to your school teachers!) Cryptomnesia falls into the same bucket as other misattributions in that we fail to recollect the source of information we're recalling — the information and event where we first remembered it are not bound together properly. Let's say we “invent” the melody to a song which already exists. The melody sounds wonderful and familiar, so we like it. But we mistakenly think it's new.
In the end, Schacter reminds us to think carefully about the memories we “know” are true, and to try to remember specifics when possible:
We often need to sort out ambiguous signals, such as feelings of familiarity or fleeting images, that may originate in specific past experiences, or arise from subtle influences in the present. Relying on judgment and reasoning to come up with plausible attributions, we sometimes go astray. When misattribution combines with another of memory's sins — suggestibility — people can develop detailed and strongly held recollections of complex events that never occurred.
And with that, we will leave it here for now. Next time we'll delve into suggestibility and bias, two more memory sins with a range of practical outcomes.