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10.4.03

I think my brain is pretty deeply linguized (languageified?). A few minutes ago I happened to think back to an incident in my Quantitative Methods course last year. We were giving presentations about proposed research topics, and Prof. Elgie had warned us not to use filler words -- "like," "um," "you know," etc. One student was giving his presentation and, after being scrupulous in adherence to the rule, accidentally used one. Realizing what he had done, he shouted "dammit!" and smacked himself loudly in the cheek.

The content of the incident isn't as important as how I remembered it. As I thought back, I realized that I couldn't picture what the student's face looked like (not expression-wise, but features -- like did he have a big nose?). This led me to think more about how well-preserved my image of the scene was, and it occurred to me that the image of the scene is not my primary memory of it. My primary memory is a story of what happened. When I want to imagine the scene, I use that story as a framework and construct an image out of the details in the story and images of the room, people, etc. from other memories. So rather than recalling the scene and re-describing it whenever I tell the story, I recall a description and reconstruct and image from it. The danger is if I then describe any of these reconstructed details that are actually spurious, and by being described they get lodged as permanent parts of the story.

This fits well with an observation I had made earlier, that I remember things best when I can tell myself a story about them. This is especially apparent in dreams -- if I can go over in my head the plot of what happened as soon as I wake up, I can remember much more than if I focus on certain images and scenes.

I wonder whether this is typical of memory functioning, except for those few blessed/cursed with photographic memories. It might explain some of the unreliabilities of eyewitness testimony. An explanation for this phenomenon might be storage capacity -- if the brain is anything like the web, text takes up much less space than an audio or video file (though that doesn't account for the ease with which we recall catchy tunes). That could also have implications for how the emergence of language (symbolic communication) made us human -- altering not only the way we're able to talk to others, but the way we talk to ourselves. Or perhaps certain people's brains are simply more predisposed to certain types of memory.

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