Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Saturday, May 06, 2006

x degrees of forgetting

Today's haul:

- "The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Social History of Drugs," by Richard Davenport-Hines (there was also "Cannabis" but this seemed - you know - broader)
- "Genes, Peoples and Languages," by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (yes, I did buy it for the author's name too)
- "A Brief History of the Smile," by Angus Trumble (see above)
- "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive," by Jared Diamond (this being the one I had actually gone in to get)

There's obviously more flying coming up. But if that wasn't all, we also succumbed to:

- Terence Blanchard -- Flow (finally)
- The Little Willies (don't you want to know more)
- Fela -- The '69 LA Sessions

Not a single DVD. Our restraint was commendable.

But that's not the point of this post. (At least, it wasn't when I started.) The point is that this morning, looking out over my balcony, I suddenly stumbled upon a memory that I'd not wanted to remember. I'm not sure how that happened -- in retrospect it may have been this post, or maybe it was the picture that had unfolded rainlessly before my eyes, or something else altogether. But suddenly it was there, calling out for attention like a scab that hadn't been picked on for a while.

Gratuitous Picture of View from Author's Balcony

My mind flickered for an instant with the idea of toying with the scab, and then decided that now was not the time. Ironic, I thought. A part of my undergraduate course deals with the structure and working of human memory -- the model of the mind as a network, with all knowledge, ideas, thoughts, emotions, goals, and memories linked and hyperlinked to each other in a vast and complex grid. Remembering things is like dipping into a bucket -- objects near the surface get pulled out easily; objects with many linkages are easier to fish out too. Those near the bottom, or with few other connections, languish forgotten in the secret recesses of the bucket.

This explains why repeating a piece of information can make it easier to remember -- the frequency of exposure drags the item towards the surface. Thinking about something also makes it harder to forget since the act of 'elaboration' can strengthen old linkages and build new ones with other items floating around. This explains why when we try to remember something, related cues often help in the recall. This explains chains of thought and streams of consciousness. And this is why forgetting cannot happen without the complete absence of rumination. But now, I was ruminating again.

I tried another good strategy. Distraction. I got up and went to work. I've been cracking my skull open on some intransigent data for a couple of days now (actually, the data have been this way since February 2003, the filename informs me). I cracked some more. I wanted to get this project out of the way this week since the one waiting in line excites me more. That one too has lots of data. And some really cool studies. In one experiment, I got groups of people to read a passage from Sherlock Holmes and... but I ramble.

At 5 o'clock, my data were stalled; a decision needed to be made; my collaborator had emailed to say let's talk on Monday; I decided to make an early Saturday of it.

I headed off to run an errand. The errand got run more efficiently than I'd expected. I realized I was three storeys beneath a bookstore. It's been a while since I was in one. I went.

I saw a kid holding a Sherlock Holmes omnibus.

I remembered the passage in my experiment.

The passage was about how one thing leads to another.

I remembered my memory again.

I think I need a drink.


In case you're wondering, here's the passage:

HOLMES had been seated for some hours in silence with his long, thin back curved over a chemical vessel in which he was brewing a particularly malodorous product. His head was sunk upon his breast, and he looked from my point of view like a strange, lank bird, with dull gray plumage and a black top-knot.
"So, Watson," said he, suddenly, "you do not propose to invest in South African securities?"
I gave a start of astonishment. Accustomed as I was to Holmes's curious faculties, this sudden intrusion into my most intimate thoughts was utterly inexplicable.
"How on earth do you know that?" I asked.
He wheeled round upon his stool, with a steaming test-tube in his hand,
and a gleam of amusement in his deep-set eyes.
"Now, Watson, confess yourself utterly taken aback," said he.
"I am."
"I ought to make you sign a paper to that effect."
"Because in five minutes you will say that it is all so absurdly simple."
"I am sure that I shall say nothing of the kind."
"You see, my dear Watson"--he propped his test-tube in the rack, and began to lecture with the air of a professor addressing his class--"it is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences, each dependent upon its predecessor and each simple in itself. If, after doing so, one simply knocks out all the central inferences and presents one's audience with the starting-point and the conclusion, one may produce a startling, though possibly a meretricious, effect. Now, it was not really difficult, by an inspection of the groove between your left forefinger and thumb, to feel sure that you did not propose to invest your small capital in the gold fields."
"I see no connection."
"Very likely not; but I can quickly show you a close connection. Here are the missing links of the very simple chain: 1. You had chalk between your left finger and thumb when you returned from the club last night. 2. You put chalk there when you play billiards, to steady the cue. 3. You never play billiards except with Thurston. 4. You told me, four weeks ago, that Thurston had an option on some South African property which would expire in a month, and which he desired you to share with him. 5. Your check book is locked in my drawer, and you have not asked for the key. 6. You do not propose to invest your money in this manner."
"How absurdly simple!" I cried.
"Quite so!" said he, a little nettled. "Every problem becomes very childish when once it is explained to you."

I have a Chianti lying around, that might be nice.


Blogger scout said...

what you teach reminds me of a course I took a while ago... some South Californian visiting professor taught us 'Mind, Brain and Society'.. very random.. but I got my A, regardless.

5/06/2006 8:45 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

sounds like something eviatar zerubavel might have gotten up to. did you come across the name? (not one that's easily forgotten.)

my gig's much more mundane -- it's called 'consumer behavior'. but people get a's here too.

5/07/2006 12:28 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

Nice piece. Brought to mind Poe's writing on the analytical thought process in "Murders in the Rue Morgue". I've pasted it below and it's a little long, but I think you may like it.
Full text here.

We were strolling one night down a long dirty street, in the vicinity of the Palais Royal. Being both, apparently, occupied with thought, neither of us had spoken a syllable for fifteen minutes at least. All at once Dupin broke forth with these words:-
"He is a very little fellow, that's true, and would do better for the Theatre des Varietes."
"There can be no doubt of that," I replied unwittingly, and not at first observing (so much had I been absorbed in reflection) the extraordinary manner in which the speaker had chimed in with my meditations. In an instant afterward I recollected myself, and my astonishment was profound.
"Dupin," said I, gravely, "this is beyond my comprehension. I do not hesitate to say that I am amazed, and can scarcely credit my senses. How was it possible you should know I was thinking of --?" Here I paused, to ascertain beyond a doubt whether he really knew of whom I thought.
--"of Chantilly," said he, "why do you pause? You were remarking to yourself that his diminutive figure unfitted him for tragedy."
This was precisely what had formed the subject of my reflections. Chantilly was a quondam cobbler of the Rue St. Denis, who, becoming stage-mad, had attempted the role of Xerxes, in Crebillon's tragedy so called, and been notoriously Pasquinaded for his pains.
"Tell me, for Heaven's sake," I exclaimed, "the method --if method there is --by which you have been enabled to fathom my soul in this matter." In fact I was even more startled than I would have been willing to express.
"It was the fruiterer," replied my friend, "who brought you to the conclusion that the mender of soles was not of sufficient height for Xerxes et id genus omne."
"The fruiterer! --you astonish me --I know no fruiterer whomsoever."
"The man who ran up against you as we entered the street --it may have been fifteen minutes ago."
I now remembered that, in fact, a fruiterer, carrying upon his head a large basket of apples, had nearly thrown me down, by accident, as we passed from the Rue C-- into the thoroughfare where we stood; but what this had to do with Chantilly I could not possibly understand.
There was not a particle of charlatanerie about Dupin. "I will explain," he said, "and that you may comprehend all clearly, we will explain," he said, "and that you may comprehend all clearly, we will first retrace the course of your meditations, from the moment in which I spoke to you until that of the rencontre with the fruiterer in question. The larger links of the chain run thus --Chantilly, Orion, Dr. Nichols, Epicurus, Stereotomy, the street stones, the fruiterer."
There are few persons who have not, at some period of their lives, amused themselves in retracing the steps by which particular conclusions of their own minds have been attained. The occupation is often full of interest; and he who attempts it for the first time is astonished by the apparently illimitable distance and incoherence between the starting-point and the goal. What, then, must have been my amazement when I heard the Frenchman speak what he had just spoken, and when I could not help acknowledging that he had spoken the truth. He continued:
"We had been talking of horses, if I remember aright, just before leaving the Rue C--. This was the last subject we discussed. As we crossed into this street, a fruiterer, with a large basket upon his head, brushing quickly past us, thrust you upon a pile of paving-stones collected at a spot where the causeway is undergoing repair. You stepped upon one of the loose fragments) slipped, slightly strained your ankle, appeared vexed or sulky, muttered a few words, turned to look at the pile, and then proceeded in silence. I was not particularly attentive to what you did; but observation has become with me, of late, a species of necessity.
"You kept your eyes upon the ground --glancing, with a petulant expression, at the holes and ruts in the pavement, (so that I saw you were still thinking of the stones,) until we reached the little alley called Lamartine, which has been paved, by way of experiment, with the overlapping and riveted blocks. Here your countenance brightened up, and, perceiving your lips move, I could not doubt that you murmured the word 'stereotomy,' a term very affectedly applied to this species of pavement. I knew that you could not say to yourself 'stereotomy' without being brought to think of atomies, and thus of the theories of Epicurus; and since, when we discussed this subject not very long ago, I mentioned to you how singularly, yet with how little notice, the vague guesses of that noble Greek had met with confirmation in the late nebular cosmogony, I felt that you could not avoid casting your eyes upward to the great nebula in Orion, and I certainly expected that you would do so. You did look up; and I was now assured that I had correctly followed your steps. But in that bitter tirade upon Chantilly, which appeared in yesterday's 'Musee,' the satirist, making some disgraceful allusions to the cobbler's change of name upon assuming the buskin, quoted a Latin line about which we have often conversed. I mean the line 'Perdidit antiquum litera prima sonum.'
I had told you that this was in reference to Orion, formerly written Urion; and, from certain pungencies connected with this explanation, I was aware that you could not have forgotten it. It was clear, therefore, that you would not fall to combine the ideas of Orion and Chantilly. That you did combine them I say by the character of the smile which passed over your lips. You thought of the poor cobbler's immolation. So far, you had been stooping in your gait; but now I saw you draw yourself up to your full height. I was then sure that you reflected upon the diminutive figure of Chantilly. At this point I interrupted your meditations to remark that as, in fact, he was a very little fellow --that Chantilly --he would do better at the Theatre des Varietes."

5/08/2006 9:54 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

nice! i hadn't read this before. but do you think it would take fifteen minutes to think all of that much?

5/09/2006 8:57 AM  

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