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The Forgetting Machine

Rodrigo Quian Quiroga

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Forgetting is useful. We look back nostagically at the careless years of childhood, but we forget the bad bits - the harsh teachers, the school bullies, the rules.

And we need to be able to forget details if we are to form general rules that we need to get through the day.

Jorge Luis Borges in 'Fumes the Memorious' described a man who was tremendously handicapped bc he remembered every detail. Not only was it difficult for him to understand that the generic term 'dog' could embrace so many disparate individuals of diverse sizes and shapes. It bothered him that the dog seen in profile at 3:14 would be called the same as the dog at 3:15 seen from the front.

Frederic Bartlett, an early C20 English psychologist, saw how malleable and subjective memeory actually is. He got his students to read a short story (a north American folk story called 'War of the Ghosts'), and then asked them to repeat the story to him

Immediately noticed two things - the recollections of the story were short and simplified. And each student modified it based on their personal interpretation.

Then at random intervals - weeks, months and years later - he asked them again to recall the story. These recollections usually had very little to do with the original story. They didn't rem the story, they recalled the interpretation they had made when they first read it. Using that as a starting point, they reconstructed the story in a different way each tiem, forgetting some details and inventing others.

Simple expt by Elizabeth Loftus demonstrated that our memories are fragile and easily manipulated. Showed group a video of a traffic accident, then asked them to estimate the speed of the cars. Five different groups - estimate speed when they smashed into each other, collided, hit bumped or contacted. Those given the word smashed gave the highest estimates, all the way down to the lowest when the word was contacted. The same bias apparent when, a week later, she asked if they had seen broken glass at the scene (there was none). 32% of the smashed crowd said they had.

Weare constantly making inferences and predictions. Hitchcock said showing a bomb before it explodes causes far mor etension that simply showing the explosion.

Just as we only see a small fragment of a view and construct the rest, our memories are based on fragments from which we reconstruct whole 'memories'

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