The way we remember

I’m not going to tell you the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it. – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

No truly honest memoir should begin without the above quote from Charles Dickens. The Shakespeare of English letters knew quite well how fragile and distorted memory can be, especially over time. The distance strains our view and our minds creatively enhance the fading contours and colors at the margins of our memory. We may well feel we vividly remember certain events in our life, but what we usually remember is more the gist, the emotional impact than the particular facts of the event. This is why journalists and writers take notes and quickly write down their thoughts and observations, so they can immediately memorialize, in writing, an event, conversation, or observation for accuracy. Barring that immediate record, we should approach recollections, especially one from many years past, with a good degree of humility and caution.

But even very recent memories, as most of us have experienced, can either be forgotten or distorted when we’re asked to recall them. We’re all expert eyewitnesses to the events of our own life, right? You would think we’d be absolutely sure about what we’ve seen, especially when our mind is focused on the event. But let’s take a very interesting case for examination.

Jennifer Thompson, a student at Elon College, was assaulted and raped in her college apartment one evening. During the rape she intentionally focused on the identity of her attacker so she could identify him latter. She was eventually able to escape. She provided a description to the police and eventually twenty-two year old Ronald Cotton was arrested. Cotton worked at a local restaurant and had a police record. Thompson picked Cotton out of a police line up. Thompson testified at court and fingered Cotton as the man who raped her. Cotton denied this over and over. He was found guilty after only forty minutes of jury deliberation and sentenced to life plus fifty years in prison.

While in prison Cotton overheard inmates saying that another inmate named Bobby Poole had actually raped Jennifer Thompson. Poole resembled Cotton and Poole was also in prison for rape. When Thompson confronted Poole he denied it. But Poole’s conversation with other inmates about raping Thompson was used to get Cotton a new trial.

At the new trial Jennifer Thompson stood roughly fifteen feet away from Poole and Cotton. She, again, identified Ronald Cotton as her rapist. The court upped Cotton’s punishment to two life sentences. Not too long after Cotton’s 2nd trial, the new scientific procedure of DNA testing proved that indeed it was Bobby Poole, not Ronald Cotton, who had raped Jennifer Thompson that night. Cotton had served 10.5 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton would eventually come together to write a book about this awful miscarriage of justice.

It’s important for us to remember that Jennifer Thompson was a “focused” witness. She was purposely studying the face and build of her attacker and yet she fingered an innocent man over and over. Could we get a better witness than Jennifer Thompson? She had no prior bias or knowledge of Cotton and she was purposely focusing on her attacker for later identification. She was morally certain that Cotton was the man who raped her. And yet she was terribly wrong.

Consider this. About seventy-five thousand police lineups take place every year. Statistics show that between 20% and 25% of the time the eyewitness identifies a suspect in the lineup that the police know isn’t correct. So upwards of 25 out of 100 people are falsely identified by the victim as the suspect in a crime we know they didn’t commit. In experimental studies where people are exposed to mock crimes the eyewitnesses tend to do exactly what Jennifer Thompson did: even though the real suspect isn’t in the lineup they finger someone who best resembles who they remember. Of the hundreds of people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence 75% were imprisoned by inaccurate eyewitness identification.

The point of the Jennifer Thompson story is just one among many that shed light on memory “construction.” Basically studies suggest that our memory tends to capture the “gist”–the general features–of what happens and our unconscious mind fills in the details. Hugo Munsterberg sums up memory construction basically like this: You remember the gist, your unconscious mind fills in the details and you believe the results. The salient idea here is how remembering an event, recalling it, can reinforce a false memory, as in the case of Jennifer Thompson. As you think back about a memory and you construct it and believe you’re remembering it correctly you then keep remembering the “constructed” memory, not necessarily what actually happen. You’re not remembering the event, per se, you’re remembering the memory.

In other words, as you recall an event you tend to remember the gist and then you unconsciously “fill in the details” and then you believe the entire memory even though some of the important details are inaccurate or false. Many times, especially in events long past, we remember the gist (and some of the details), but more significantly we remember the emotions involved in the event. And of course the emotions can be the most powerful part of a recalled event, which in-turn can drive us to “construct” more memory which may turn out to be entirely false.

Now why is memory construction or reconstruction this way? Well, studies suggest that memory retention is analogous to how computers store imagines. Computers compress images for storage. This means that only the key attributes of the image are actually kept. When you pull the image up from storage (your memory) the computer (your brain), based on the limited information it has from the compressed file, will predict and fill in small details of the stored image that were not kept. If you were to look at your stored image in a thumbnail size it would “appear” very accurate and clear. However, if you blow up the image you would notice detail errors and bands of solid colors where the computer software (your unconscious mind) predicted wrong.

There is also the issue of memory “addition.” We’ve all had that feeling of recounting a memory and being told, or shown, a part of it didn’t happen, or at least not in the particular way or in the particular event we’re recounting. We’re conflating two events or even adding in color, contour, and actions to our memories from various other related or unrelated events stored in memory. Research has also shown that memories can be implanted through a process of what I’ll describe as priming and suggestion. Our memory, like people in general, is open to manipulation.

Now this post isn’t trying to suggest that you should always doubt your memory. For the most part our memories are fine in getting through life and recalling events. We may not get all the details right and depending on the amount of time that’s past, remembering the gist of what happen is good enough for reminiscing. I think the main point to take from the research on memory is that we should approach our memories with a degree of humility and caution depending on what remembering means. If you’re writing a memoir, or blogging about life, or telling stories over wine then getting the gist and filling in the details is, well, being human-all-to-human. It’s just part of the good sport of life. (You can, of course, enhance the accuracy of your memories by finding supporting evidence and corroborating events with other people.) But if recalling from memory has serious implications you need to be extra cautious and be mindful of the possible errors and distortions that may be present.

Reference links:

On the Witness Stand: Essays on Psychology and Crime

Eyewitness Testimony can be Problematic at Trial

Police Lineups Start to Face Facts: Eyes can Lie

Searching For Memory: The Brain, The Mind, And The Past

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Chapter 3, Remembering and Forgetting, of Dr. Mlodinow’s best selling book is the impetus and guide for this post. He has upwards of around 40 sources supporting his discussion of memory. It’s an excellent book! )

What is the Good Life?

What are the common elements of the good life? In Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s new book, How Much is Enough: Money and the Good Life, they argue there are 7 basic elements that converge to make up the good life.

  1. Health
  2. Security
  3. Personality
  4. Friendship
  5. Leisure
  6. Harmony with Nature
  7. Respect

Part 2 of Interview.
Part 3 of Interview.

F. Scott Fitzgerald on what it takes

fitzgeraldYou’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Modern Library Association voted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, as the 2nd best novel of the 20th century. (James Joyces’s Ulysses was first). The story is superb. The novel is ultimately a meditation on the social and moral decay of the 1920s, that’s brought about by an unchecked desire and greed for money and pleasure. The book was required reading when I was in High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in the 1980s. I’ve read the novel at least three times since then and each time I discover something else interesting or insightful about the book I didn’t see before. I guess that’s the real genius of art. It always speaks to us at that moment in time about something that’s timeless.

For me it’s interesting to hear great artists talk about their craft and how they approach the creative process. The philosopher in me wants to understand how the artist conceptualizes. I want to know how the artist thinks about their craft. For novelists, it’s about how they approach the craft of writing and how they develop their own unique style.

Fitzgerald’s prose and poetic depth are captivating. You may recall these haunting lines from The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

And who could forget the final lines from this novel that was ultimately inscribed on Fitzgerald’s tombstone:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Some of the best insights about writing, philosophy, and life come from the private letters of great writers and thinkers. Below is a specimen from a collection of Fitzgerald’s letters that I found very interesting and insighful. In this letter Fitzgerald talks to Frances about the high price that must be paid for “professional work.”

November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

Excellent speech by David Brooks at the Chicago Humanities Festival

I’m a dedicated reader of David Brooks’s work. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s a columnist for The New York Times. He mostly covers politics, but he also writes about culture and the social sciences. I was originally drawn to Brooks’s writing because his political analysis was, for the most part, reasonable and fair. I may not always agree with his arguments, but I find many of his observations fascinating and funny. Along with being a real wit (as you will see in the video), he’s a superb writer.

His social science writing is some of the best stuff out there. In 2011 Brooks published the The Social Animal. It was a New York Times #1 bestseller. The book is about the latest discoveries in social science research. Basically it’s a book that explains how individuals actually flourish as human beings. It’s a book that basically explains to us (through a story) how much our intuitions, emotions and the unconscious parts of our mind, are actually the deciding factors in how our lives actually turn out. It’s one of those non-fiction books I can read over and over. I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Social Animal.

In the talk above Brooks discusses politics through the lens of his social science research and his many years as a political journalist. I think It’s a really good, insightful speech. I hope you’ll watch.

Serious Jibber-Jabber: Conan O’Brien interviews Edmund Morris

Conan O’Brien has a new project going called Serious Jibber-Jabber. In the interview above O’Brien talks with one of my favorite biographers and writers, Edmund Morris.

Morris is mostly known for his 3 volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt (TR). A truly exceptional biography. The first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book award. The 3 volume biography leaves you feeling like you’ve truly been in the presence of TR. I can’t say enough about Morris’s art and skill as a biographer.

Morris was also the official biographer of President Ronald Reagan. Morris was basically hired on as White House staff during the Reagan years so he could research and write Reagan’s official biography. After its release, the biography generated a lot of controversy over the way it was written. Morris had fictional elements in his biography of Reagan. Why did he include fictional elements in the biography? Well after years of being around Reagan, interviewing him many times, along with personal acquaintances and people who worked for the President, Morris had a difficult time figuring Reagan out, getting inside his head. As Morris said, “Nobody around him understood him. I, every person I interviewed, almost without exception, eventually would say, ‘You know, I could never really figure him out.'” Morris decided to use a fictional character in his biography in an attempt to paint Reagan as how one might see Reagan if you had known Reagan over his life and career.

I enjoyed Dutch, the book was an artistic master piece of writing and a truly innovative, even if not necessarily popular, way to understand Reagan and the man behind the Presidential facade. Of course many acolytes of Reagan, and even the former President’s wife, Nancy Reagan, didn’t care for the book because the biography didn’t always cast Reagan in a positive light. Morris might have been Reagan’s Boswell, but Morris felt his job, most of all, was to paint Reagan in full color, warts and all. I think history will ultimately render a positive verdict on Morris’s work. It is still probably the best biography of Reagan you can read.

Morris also wrote a short biography on Beethoven. And Morris just recently published a book of essays. While Morris is a superb biographer, I personally think his greatest gift and contribution to the history of letters will be as a literary artist. He prose, as one critic says, is hard but elegant. He draws, like Charles Dickens, unforgettable scenes and his play with words is masterful. I always felt I was being educated about the central character of the book and about what, if I was paying close attention, a literary artist has to teach me about writing. Morris is a giant in the world of literature.

Kahneman and the biases of intuition

Over the past few years I’ve read a number of books and research studies related to social psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics. One of the most interesting books during this time was Daniel Kahneman’s book: Thinking, Fast and Slow. The “book is about biases of intuition.” Kahneman, along with a growing number of scientific studies, demonstrates just how error prone our intuitive judgments can be.

As we navigate our lives, we normally allow ourselves to be guided by impressions and feelings, and the confidence we have in our intuitive beliefs and preferences is usually justified. But not always. We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.     

As our guide and objective observer, Kahneman takes us on a tour of the predictable biases (or systematic errors) in human cognition that all of us have. The book is a fascinating read. I highly recommend it. Of course, most of us are aware that people have biases, but Kahneman shows us just how pervasive they are. You’ll be surprised how many times in the book Kahneman sets you up and demonstrates your own biases. Probably the most obvious bias on display during this political season is confirmation bias. For the most part, Democrats and Republicans immediately read information as confirming what they already believe.

Personally, the biggest benefit I took from Kahnman’s book is simple awareness. I can’t say because I’m aware of how pervasive these cognitive biases are that I’m able to avoid them. I’m human, all too human. But being consciously aware and, I believe, honestly trying to avoid them is the best anyone can do.

Talking to the elephant

If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.”― J. Haidt

If you haven’t read Jonathan Haidt’s work, I highly recommend you do. Haidt is a social psychologist who specializes in moral psychology. His latest book, The Righteous Mind, is a fascinating book on why it’s so difficult for people to talk about religion and politics. You’ve probably heard the saying: “You can talk about anything with people but religion and politics.” Why is that? The short answer is that religious and political beliefs have strong, non-rational, emotional elements that make critical discussions very difficult if not, depending on the person, impossible. We may want to have that honest, open philosophical discussion about politics or religion (or maybe even football!) but we tend to find that most people can’t without getting too angry or personal. Well, Dr. Haidt provides a way of seeing, and hence understanding, this problem.

Haidt invents a very useful metaphor for understanding how the rational and intuitive (emotional, non-rational) parts of our mind interact when our moral passions are engaged by questions of politics or religion. Haidt asks us to see our mind as divided into two parts: an elephant and a rider. The elephant is the emotional or intuitive part of our mind. The rider is the rational part of our mind. The elephant is much bigger and stronger and is ultimately in charge. The rider, who represents the slower, more reasoning part of the human psyche, can try to influence, goad, or reason with the elephant but the rider can’t make the elephant ultimately do what it doesn’t want to. More often than not the rider merely plays the part of a lawyer defending his client’s (the elephant) actions or decisions post-mortem. So when it comes to religion and politics our inner elephant is already leaning (or stampeding) in the preferred direction from the start. The rider does what he can, but for the most part he’s along for the ride.

So our moral judgments are mostly the product of emotional preference. Rational considerations play a very small part in moral judgments. Haidt’s first principle of moral psychology is: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” If we want to change people’s minds we have to begin by understanding that few people can be “reasoned” out of their moral beliefs. Reasoning is attempting to convince the rider. To change minds you have to talk to the elephant. And that’s not easy. People, as the old saying goes, believe what they want to in spite of mountains of evidence to the absolute contrary. There is an emotional attachment (and pay off) to moral beliefs and the sense of belonging people get from standing with like minded people (“your team”). There actually are some social benefits to this mindset. But this “tribal” mindset has also led to some of the worst atrocities in history.

So if the emotions play such a powerful role in the quality of our society and individual lives, what might we do to improve our moral emotional intelligence – if that’s possible at all. Basically, how do we train the elephant? Let me suggest one way. What this means, in my mind, is that an education in the Arts & Humanities is far more important than we ever thought. The Arts and Humanities, more than any other study, helps educate the emotions – the fuel of our moral sentiments. Besides teaching you how to think, more importantly, the Arts and Humanities teach us how to feel. The philosopher Roger Scruton makes a compelling argument along these lines in his book Culture Counts. Scruton is, of course, referring to the larger, more encompassing idea of (Western) Culture. But much of what he means by culture falls within the Arts & Humanities.

At first I actually came away from reading Haidt’s work with the impression that we’re all doomed. I mean if emotionality settles everything then what hope can we have in reason and progress. In fact, Haidt even says at one point that faith in reason is an illusion. But of course this is coming from a social scientist who’s just presented a well crafted scientifically “reasoned” argument. Should our faith in his conclusions also be considered illusory?

Let me conclude this ramble with some parting thoughts. Haidt’s elephant and rider metaphor are an excellent way to understand how individuals reach moral decisions. We are emotionally driven creatures who feel first and reason second. As Shakespeare’s Gloucester says in King Lear, “I see it feelingly.” I think this idea is a sound observation that most of us understand intuitively. Emotions are king. But Haidt doesn’t attempt to say how we channel these emotional forces like, say, the ancient Greeks did in through their art, philosophy and history. Haidt provides an excellent image for understanding our dilemma, but he really doesn’t offer any ideas for how we might mitigate the problem. Or at least none that satisfies me. My thoughts are that we can, in the modern world, channel or inform our emotions through education, specifically in the Arts & Humanities. I’m not saying an education in the Arts and Humanities will be a sure bet for taming the inner elephant, but certainly it may help calm it. And it might even help soothe the elephant into listening to the rider.