I used to think that experience plus memory produced beliefs. Now I think I may have gotten this backwards as well. (For other things I’ve gotten backwards, click here).
Here’s how I used to think memory worked:
We experience the world around us and we remember our previous experiences. By and large, our memories of previous experiences are accurate. Perhaps we lose a little detail around the edges but the main ideas are clear and constant. The combination of (accurate) memories plus current experiences leads us to conclusions about how the world works. These conclusions create mental models and, voilà, we have a belief system. Our memories create our beliefs.
As our experiences change, our belief system does, too. We’re constantly comparing our experiences to our mental models. As our experiences – both remembered and current – change, our mental models should change, too. We can be confident that our memories are accurate and that our mental models are up to date.
It’s all neat and tidy. Everything flows in a nice, straight line. It’s completely logical. Unfortunately, it’s also completely wrong.
According to Chris Chabris and Dan Simons, most people – 63% in their survey – believe that “human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later.” It’s a comforting thought but it’s wrong. We invent new memories with remarkable ease and mix up events and expectations
As Chabris and Simons point out, our memory “…depends both on what actually happened and how we make sense of what happened.” We may have the same experiences as other people but draw different lessons from them. But if my lessons learned are different from yours … well, whose memory is accurate? My lessons learned fit my mental models and yours fit yours. Our beliefs create our memories.
As Jorge Luis Borges pointed out, no one sees a unicorn because no one expects to see a unicorn. The same is true for memory – we remember what we expect to remember. William Brewer and James Treyens conducted a classic experiment on this. They asked subjects to wait briefly in “…what they thought was a graduate student’s office…” Shortly after, the researchers asked the students to recall what they saw in the office. The subjects reported seeing what one would expect to see in a graduate student’s office – books, file cabinets, etc. But none of that was there; the subjects simply made it up.
Our memories change to fit our beliefs, not the other way round. Chabris and Simons recount the story of the basketball coach Bobby Knight who was fired for “choking” a young college player. Knight and the player had radically different memories of the event. In fact, Knight claimed not to remember it at all. I suspect he was telling the truth. Knight had a famously bad temper and choking a student was apparently not such a big deal to him. Nothing special to remember. For the player, it was exactly the opposite. Being choked by a world-famous coach was a very big deal. In fact, the player remembered an “embellished” version of the event — even after seeing video tape of the event.
Who was lying? Probably neither the player nor Knight. Their memories simply conformed to their beliefs.
The list goes on. We don’t notice changes in our surroundings. We see a person in a black leather jacket leave the room. Moments later, we see a person in a black leather jacket make a phone call. We perceive it to be the same person and remember it that way – even if two very different people are wearing similar jackets.
We can also “borrow” memories from others. If my friend, Trevor, tells a colorful story about himself that peripherally involves me, I may change it over time by swapping the actors. Trevor becomes the peripheral character; I become the main event. Further, I’ll be absolutely confident that I’m telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
What’s it all mean? We’re far too confident in our own memories. Our memories change to fit our beliefs. Eyewitnesses have no idea what really happened. Different people with different memories of the same event are all telling the truth as they see it. Nothing is as it seems. And don’t you forget it.
Do you forget stuff? Yeah, me too. It makes it harder to be innovative.
The trouble is that innovative ideas don’t come all polished up and wrapped in a pretty bundle. When a creative person describes her process, it may seem that innovative new ideas arrive in a flash of insight. That’s a nice way to tell a story but it’s not really the way it happens.
In truth, innovation is more like building a puzzle — when you don’t know what the finished piece is supposed to look like. You collect a piece here and a piece there. Perhaps, by putting them together, you create another piece. Then, a random interaction with a colleague supplies another piece — which is why random interactions are so important.
Each piece of the puzzle is a “slow hunch” in Steven Johnson’s phrase. You create a piece of an idea and it hangs around for a while. Some time later — perhaps many years later — you find another idea that just happens to complete the original idea. It works great if, and only if, you remember the original idea.
In previous posts on mashup thinking, I may have implied that you simply take two ideas that occur more or simultaneously and stick them together. But look a little closer. One of my favorite mashup examples is DJ Danger Mouse, who took the Beatle’s White Album and mashed it up with Jay Z’s Black Album to create the Grey Album, one of the big hits of 2004. But how long was it between the White Album and the Black Album? Well, at least a generation. I remember the White Album but not the Black Album. I think our son is probably the reverse. Neither one of us could complete the idea. DJ Danger Mouse’s originality comes from his memory. He remembered a “slow hunch” — the White Album — and mashed it into something contemporary.
So, how do you remember slow hunches? By writing them down. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I started this blog — so I won’t forget good ideas. I can now go back and search for ideas that I thought were important several years ago. I can recall them, put them together with new hunches, and perhaps create new ideas.
I like to read widely. I’m hoping that ideas — both old and new — will collide more or less randomly to create new ideas. Unfortunately, I often forget what I read. With this blog, I now have a place store slow hunches. And, since it’s public, I’m hoping that you’ll help me complete the cycle. Let’s get your random ideas colliding with my random ideas. That will help us both remember, put our hunches together, and come up with bright new ideas. Sounds like a plan. Now we just need to remember to stick with it.
Some interesting things I spotted this week, whether they were published this week or not.
The Economist asks, will we ever again invent anything that’s as useful as the flush toilet? Is the pace of innovation accelerating or decelerating? And what should we do about it, if anything?
When we think about innovation, we often focus on ideas and creativity. How can we generate more good ideas? But what about the emotional component of innovation? For innovative companies, emotional intelligence may trump technical intelligence. Norbert Alter answers your questions from Paris.
We’re familiar with the platform wars for mobile applications. Will Apple’s iOS become the dominant platform? Or maybe it will be Android from Google? Perhaps it’s some version of Windows? But what if the next great mobile app platform is a Ford or a Chevy? (Click here).
For my friends in Sweden, here’s McKinsey’s take on the future of the Swedish economy. Things are looking up — just don’t rest on your laurels.
Where does America’s R&D money go? Here’s an infographic that shows how the Federal government has invested in research over the past 50 years.
The Greeks had lots of tricks for memorizing things. They could hold huge volumes of information in their heads. But does memory matter anymore? After all, you can always Google it, no? William Klemm writes that there are five reasons why tuning up your memory is still important. And he’s a Texas Aggie so he must be right.