Back to the Future

A recent article written by David Ludden argues that our memory has nothing to do with preserving the past, and everything to do with preparing for the future.  We truly believe that our memories are like video cameras; recording (and storing) everything we see and do in our lives; when the reality is, it depends on WHAT the memory is, and our expectations about those memories. Our memories are more like TV drama shows- they’re based on little facts, but alot of fiction.

The bottom line is, our memories do not record EVERYTHING; they only record events that may have future relevance in our lives. For example, when you lock your door, get in the car, and drive to your workplace in the morning; you don’t necessarily have a vivid recollection of these events. However, if you’d almost hit a person illegally running across the street on your morning commute, you WOULD remember this. And next time, you’d be more aware of your surroundings and maybe even drive slower down that street so what happened last time would not happen again.

The act of slowing down and scanning the sidewalks more carefully the next time you drive down that street is because of our “pattern-detecting” brains. This characteristic of the brain allows us to learn about the world in order to successfully live in and interact with it.

Us humans tend to detect patterns that aren’t even there. This is why we see images in clouds or images in our cereal.  We also detect patterns in music. I know that I, personally, generally succeed at guessing what the next few beats of a song will sound like because I’ve listened to so much music in my life. If our expectations of what is coming next are met, we are satisfied; but if our expectations are exceeded by an unexpected and out-of-the-box set of beats, we are ecstatic. This is all a part how people fall in love with music.

Our pattern-detecting brains also play a large role in language. When in conversation, listening to the radio talk hosts, or the lyrics of a song, we’re constantly trying to guess what is coming next. This is why we can “finish each other’s sentences”, and why you’ll often see two people who are deep in conversation mouthing what the other person is saying.

While our pattern-detecting brains are evolutionarily necessary, they sometimes lead us in the wrong direction.  For example,

While Mary bathed her baby played on the floor.

This is a garden path sentence confuses is. A comma would solve everything for our brains, but without the comma, we’re confused. We would expect her baby to be the object of bathed, but without the comma, we don’t know who was bathing – Mary or the baby.

Memory is our survival. We rely on it’s extensive amount of knowledge to make predictions in all kinds of situations we go through in life.


3 thoughts on “Back to the Future

  1. allieboe

    The comment you made about almost hitting an illegal pedestrian made me think about something that happened to me last semester that I still find myself thinking about while walking on Campus Walk. When UMW first put up those signs on the light posts this past fall, they faced inward, toward Campus Walk. Well, having walked down Campus Walk for the past 2 years, I was pretty familiarized with the route, so I wasn’t paying too much attention as to the placement of the signs. I ended up smacking my head on one of the signs by Monroe (pretty embarrassing) because I wasn’t used to them being there. Even though the signs have now been moved to face the outside of Campus Walk, I still find myself checking every time I walk by that specific light post. I guess that’s my brain’s way of pattern-detecting so I don’t hit my head again!

  2. rguenthe

    I have had that happen before when I am driving if something unusual happens I also slow down and pay more attention especially if I am driving and a police car or ambulance passes by me. Also, there has been a lot of construction every where so I am used to going through a detour in one of my streets at home but when I returned back from break the detour was not there anymore because the construction was gone and I got so baffled because I was so used to taking the detour I almost did not remember the real way to go.

  3. Kendra Ganser

    I think it’s interesting that you mentioned that we see patterns in everything (i.e. clouds). I’ve often wondered why we feel the need to seek out patterns in everything. I think it is because in some ways it makes us feel more secure to think we have control over the world around us. I think that despite us seeing patterns everywhere, it’s definitely logical that somewhere along the line that we would get lead on the wrong path (garden path sentences).

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