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Memory in Perception

One of the many reasons that we at Memrise are so convinced it’s still worth learning things in a world where information is never more than a few clicks away, is the clear role that memory plays in perception.

Because memories inside the head influence what we notice in the world, knowledge serves to deepen experience, and to give it both variety and structure. These are all good things. And the existence of information easily accessible online is quite unable to help in these regards.

To take one example, the fact that Flemish dictionaries exist online doesn’t help me converse in that language. Even if it was possible to look up a word online in a 1/6th of a second without moving a muscle, this would be no help to me whatsoever in understanding or producing Flemish. You need to know a word to be able either to hear it or to say it, and without that ability, based in memory, you’d never know what it is that you should enter as a search term into an online dictionary acting as a memory substitute.

Externally stored knowledge is clearly no substitute for the real thing.

But the other day, while gaily explaining all this to my local key-maker, I struggled, on being challenged, to produce amusing examples of how memory had influenced what I’d been perceiving in the preceding days. I couldn’t think of any instances of my memory entering into what I’d seen and heard.

Chastened, I resolved to keep a list for a period of a week or so of moments where I mis-perceived the world in a way clearly influenced by memory. I had to collect mis-perceptions, because where memory influences perception normally and successfully, one doesn’t notice. Only where it goes wrong is this kind of thing consciously accessible.

The following, then, is a collection of my memory-induced mis-perceptions of the world over the last week or so:

a) Sitting in the back of a car rumbling round a pot-holed corner, I thought I saw a glowing red ball bouncing its way in out ahead across the road. This vision was quickly resolved into the veridical perception of a red traffic-light behind us being reflected in the car’s windscreen as it bumped around the corner.

b) Sat at a window, I was astonished at one point to see an insanely fast cow zipping across the field in my periphery, only on turning to see that it was, in fact, a farmer’s white van.

c) I had left my computer on a table in the corner of a cafe while going to exchange pleasantries with a local. On returning, I was horrified to see the keyboard covered in bits of scrambled-egg. Proximity revealed that this was in fact a scattered reflection from the disco-ball suspended above my work-place.

d) Walking, I saw a woman being pushed along in a wheel chair with a halo above her head- only to realize that this was in fact the sun catching the circular arm-hold of one of the crutches which her pushing companion was carrying in his hands

e) While holding my iPod, I jolted to perceive a spider running across the screen, only to realize on closer inspection that it was a fleck of grey weave that had been thrown off of my jacket

f) At another point I spotted that toothpaste had spilled onto the floor, but a sharp glance revealed it just to be a white feather next to the sealed, but floor-bound, tube of Colgate.

g) Traveling on the tram, a door opened at the front of a house to my left and there, in the shadows, a yellow mop of hair briefly summoned the sight of the English politician Boris Johnson into my perception, an impression animated by the crop of pretty girls waiting outside the door. I passed too fast to confirm that it was not the Mayor of London (but I doubt it was, as this was in Antwerp).

h) Bumbling barefoot around my apartment late one evening, I stepped in water, to my disgust- and, cursing the leak in my fridge, I looked downward and saw that I was just standing on a cold, dry plastic bag. i) A surge of irritation at a fly itching at my skin, only to realize that it was the lead to my headphones riding up under encouragement from my scarf

j) Very late at night, my attention was seized by the vision of an exceptionally beautiful girl, before a direct gaze revealed her to be in early old age and not beautiful by conventional standards

k) In a garden, I mistook a sudden billowing in a hanging white sheet for an approaching person, at just the same moment that my companion, who was slightly differently positioned, recognized in that white movement his next-door neighbor’s cat. l) Also, from a passing train this time and in a state of terrible tiredness, I mistook a man reading a newspaper in the shadows for a lion standing upright roaring. m) On a different occasion, I spotted a thin pall of mist hanging in the middle of Antwerp station, which closer interrogation revealed to be a selection of interference patterns in iron lattice-work grids that criss-crossed each other far beyond the imagined location of the fog right over on the opposite side of the station

n) While standing doing nothing in a philosophy department corridor, the thought that my lassitude was being observed was prompted by the sight of feet sticking out, revealing their surreptitious owner, from behind a nearby buttress: but it was just the blade of a broom. o) And, just on my way to a cafe to write these notes up, the sudden and incongruous movement of a leaf in the wind of this still, chill, day had me, for a blink, preparing to hop out of the way of a fleeing mouse.

I’m sure that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to even just the mis-perceptions I’ve experienced in the last week; I would love to develop a simple methodology for noticing this kind of thing more efficiently.

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