Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Persistence of Memory

While searching for new resources to use for work, especially those which deal with social science, stats, and social media, I came across a blog with a title that would make a lot of people run away: Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. At first I thought it would make me run away, too – statisticians aren’t the most engaging writers, for the most part (you know it’s true, statheads) – but I found enough material of interest to keep me scrolling through it.

One post in particular gave reason to pause for thought.

“Last summer my wife and I took a 3.5-month vacation that included a wide range of activities. When I got back, people would ask “what were the highlights or your trip?”, and I was somewhat at a loss: we had done so many things that were so different, many of which seemed really great…how could I pick? Someone said, wisely, that in six months or a year I’d be able to answer the question because some memories would be more vivid than others. They were right, and I was recently thinking back on our vacation and putting together a list of highlights — enjoyable in itself, but also worth doing to help plan future vacations.”

I thought how true that is about memories. He goes on to talk about the things he remembers about track events at the London Olympics, and it made me think about how many baseball games I’ve been to versus my actual memories of games.

I’ve been told my people that I tend to remember more details about events than the average bear, which has served to fuel my curiosity about the human memory, a very flawed but fascinating part of existence. Especially intriguing are the studies that show how easily people can be led to believe they have memories of things that never happened.

Baseball leaves a lot of room for false memories. So much is happening – who’s up, who’s pitching, what’s the count, how many outs, where are the fielders positioned, what pitches are thrown, what’s the score, who’s on deck, etc. – that it is easy to misremember how something actually happened.

I think some of our greatest memories aren’t memories at all but are stuck in our heads because we’ve seen videos or photographs of the event over and over again. If I didn’t know the Game Six homer by Fisk happened a year and four months before I was born, I’d probably think I actually remembered it. Now I’m starting to doubt if I really remember the Bruce homer that clinched the 2010 Central Division for the Reds or if that iconic Topps baseball card is what makes it so vivid.

One of my greatest baseball memories happened last year in Washington. The Phillies were in town and it was E$PN’s Sunday Night Baseball. We were six rows behind the Phillies dugout, about even with third base. Cole Hamels, who had earlier indicated he would peg Bryce Harper, followed through on his threats, and Harper was awarded first.

Here are the things I remember:

1. The Hamels pitch hitting Harper. I don’t remember exactly where it hit him anymore. I remember the sound of it hitting him. Or I think I remember it. Would I remember it better if I saw the video of it? Would it remind me of something that’s already in my head? Or would I be learning something new and posing it as a memory?

2. Harper standing on third base. I don’t remember how he got there. Chris and I discussed it the other day and neither one of us remembered it. We said we thought he stole one of the bases, but we didn’t know which one, and we could think that because we want it to be true. However it happened, he was on third and I do remember that rather vividly, even commenting about how big a lead he was taking.

3. Harper stealing home. I only remember the running and some vague image of a slide. I think he slid, but that could be a false memory. I definitely remember the running.

What I remember most is the feeling of it all. Harper showed up the loud-mouthed veteran in the best possible manner. There was excitement, animosity, and a sense of justice watching the whole thing go down. Those feelings are real, moreso than the images I have in my mind.

It’s funny to think about now, in this age of the incessant barrage of video and imagery we are faced with. Based on those studies of false memories, you have to wonder if our brains are even capable of telling the difference between what we see and reality. Given that conspiracy theories are all the rage these days, I’m leaning on the no side.

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