It’s possible that the reason a large number of people seem to reject what science tells them on a number of topics is that science is just a giant conspiratorial party pooper. There are few things more comforting than a long-standing unchallenged belief in something or other or a simple explanation for a complex question shouted loudly by some supremely confident and arrogant blowhard with no actual basis for what he or she is saying. Fill in the name with your own suggestion.
That said, it’s hard not to be annoyed by the evolving research into how we actually observe the world around us, and how days or years later we inaccurately recall what we think we observed. In brief, science is telling us that we are not walking, talking video recorders with unlimited storage capacity. How dare it?
A summary by the public relations department at Northwestern University of a 2012 study by Donna J. Bridge and Ken A. Paller was titled “Your Mind is Like the Telephone Game.” This is much snappier and ultimately more chilling than the title of the paper it referred to, published in the Journal of Neuroscience as “Neural Correlates of Reactivation and Retrieval-Induced Distortion.” It seems that each time we recall an event we are actually recalling our last recall of that event rather than the original. Over time, Bridge said, leaving scholarly language behind briefly, “A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event — it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it. Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.”
Now if you add this to the research behind the very entertaining book The Invisible Gorilla, it becomes clear that we are much more impressed with our abilities to observe and remember than we should be. The book by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons describes their research into how little we actually absorb of what’s going on around us. Their classic experiment, replicated several times, found that people given the task of counting basketball passes in a video were so focused on that assignment that at least 50% missed noticing a person in a gorilla suit marching into the middle of the scene, pounding its chest, and dancing around for a few seconds. That and other examples should leave most readers of the book (e.g. me) with a much lower opinion of their own ability to observe and recall with much accuracy. It calls into question important things such as eyewitness testimony and somewhat less important ones such as the stories we tell about ourselves.
This is why it’s hard not to be annoyed with science and its insistence on fact versus comfort.
As a result, lately I’ve been forced to reassess some fairly important milestones in my life. It’s just possible…not likely but just barely possible, that I’ve been incorrect about a few things that I’m pretty sure I remember accurately.
For example, I might not have pitched four consecutive no-hitters as a ten year-old Little Leaguer. In fact, most of my pitching appearances were greeted with eager anticipation by opposing hitters, who found me less challenging than the coach who gently lobbed the ball to them in batting practice. This comes from the testimony of family and friends who watched some of the games. The possibility remains that all of them suffer from distorted memories and that mine is the accurate one.
During my time in the Air Force in North Dakota I received some ribbons to pin on the nice uniform I was allowed to wear. After wowing a number of people in over the years with descriptions of how I earned them, it was with real trepidation that I looked over my actual records from those four years. This led me to a search in the public library’s database, unearthing the stark fact that I have apparently been describing a character in an early Tom Clancy novel. My ribbons were basically for showing up on time. Still…I usually was on time.
I’ve frequently looked back fondly on the month of October, 2003, when I clearly recalled getting nothing but positive feedback on satisfaction surveys and no requests for further work on the many literature searches I did that month. I had considered it my winning Super Bowl. There was unfortunately a logbook that we allegedly filled in at the time, and the surveys were scanned. I’m forced to admit that there might be more than one way to interpret phrases such as: “is English your first language?” or “you must be very new at this” or “I get more clarity from my three year-old” or the more ambiguous “really?? really???”
I look forward to ten years or so in the future when I’ll be able to recall the Pulitzer or at least Webby Special Achievement award that this essay earned.