Column on memory and why it fails us is gone but not forgotten by objecting readers

My theory that our memories fail us because we are overtaxed by the daily torrents of information we receive in this age of communication is disdained by several readers, including Donald A. Norman, professor of psychology at the Institute for Cognitive Science, University of California at San Diego.

"I am a student of memory and also of human error," writes Norman. "How could we possibly experience more stimulation today than in earlier eras? The brain processes the stimulation that arrives through the sense organs. As long as my eyes are open and I am awake, the sounds and sights (and feels and smells and touches and tastes) of the world will arrive at the brain, be processed by the brain, and be experienced by the mind.

"The amount of stimulation that I receive is more determined by the number of hours that I am awake and mentally active than by anything else. I can be equally stimulated by a walk along the beach or a casual chat with acquaintances as through reading a book, watching television, or attending a lecture. The important issue is how deeply we attend to and think about things. That is what determines the amount of information stored and processed by the mind."

In view of his awesome credential, I suppose Norman's ideas must be attended to. And perhaps he is right; perhaps it is true that I would be stimulated to deeper thought by a stroll along the beach at our house down in Baja, watching the surf, the pelicans, the porpoises, the fishermen in their small boats, than I would by attending one of his lectures. In fact, I might have a hard time concentrating on one of his lectures, and find myself thinking about the beach at Baja.

At least Prof. Norman gives us some good news about loss of memory: "Personally, I think the limits of our memory system are blessings. The automatic loss of material in its transition from short-to-long-term storage helps prevent the overload that you write about. And the 'errors' and 'confusions' that you write about are simply the incidental byproduct of the powerful and flexible operations of the human mind that also lead to creativity, discovery, and insight. The one is the simple consequence of the other. . . ."

David Simmons of Ridgecrest argues that no one has the faintest idea what the capacity of the mind is, or how the memory works; and therefore to say that the memory is overloaded, or even can be, is "purest speculation."

He calls it an "editorial trick" to set up an imaginary man, Geoffrey Farmer, of York, England, in 1385, to make my point.

"I doubt that you are really that cognizant of a real 'day in the life of Geoffrey Farmer.' Besides, you are in the top fraction of a percent of the world's population in economic status and education (or equivalent experience) and should compare your day to someone of equal level in your imagined year. To say that Farmer knows nothing of physics, chemistry, biology, or mathematics is meaningless because most people today are in the same boat. I suspect that knowledgeable people then were just as aware of the current philosophical speculations as those of today are about ours."

I doubt if Simmons is any more cognizant of a real day in the life of Geoffrey Farmer than I am. Except for a few scholars, pedagogues and clergymen, Farmer probably had as much education as every other man in England, which meant virtually none. As for physics, chemistry and biology, not as much was known then as can be stuffed into the head of the average high school student today, despite his resistance.

Griffin R. McKay, dean of instruction at Glendale Community College, tells a story that seems to verify the notion that memory is finite and can be filled up.

"David Starr Jordan was the first president of Stanford University and occupied that position for many years. When he first assumed the presidency, he publicly stated that within a short period of time he would be able to greet every student in attendance at the school by their first names. He was eminently successful, and was very quickly greeting them with their names; and then suddenly and inexplicably he was observed while on campus to always walk with his eyes cast down to the ground, never establishing eye contact with the students and never greeting them by name.

"You should understand that Jordan was a world renowned ichthyologist and was reputed to know the name of every species of fish in the world. The reason he gave for his change in behavior was that he had become convinced that with each student's name he memorized, he forgot the name of a fish."

By the way, Herbert Powell of Santa Barbara calls me on a breakdown in my own memory. I had written that the oldest son of one of Geoffrey's cronies "had got hold of a book of poems by that fellow Chaucer, and was learning to read. . . ."

"I'm a little bothered by Will's oldest son's precocity. To think that he buried his nose in a book by that popular author Chaucer in the year 1385! Gutenberg wasn't to invent printing with moveable type and issue his first book, the Bible, until 1455. . . ."

Well, maybe Prof. Norman is right. That was just one of the errors and confusions that are the incidental byproducts of the powerful and flexible operations of the human mind that also lead to creativity, discovery and insight.

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