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Doing Violence to your Memories

When you learn the meaning of a new word, it often happens that over the next few days it magically pops up everywhere you look and listen: on the radio, in conversation, in the things you are reading.

This common experience can seem like cosmic coincidence, as if the world is helping you practise your new bit of vocab. In fact, it’s elegant evidence that what you know (your memory) determines what you notice (your perception).

The influence of memory on perception is everywhere, but it only shows itself when things go awry, or change suddenly.

Examples abound: when you take a swig of latte only for someone’s tea to arrive in your mouth, it tastes disgusting- even if you love tea. The expectation (memory) of coffee blended with the reality (sensation) of tea makes that tea taste different. A related process is at work when you recall that the girl you’re looking at is the sole heir to the Argos fortune- and she suddenly looks more symmetrical.

The key point to realize here is that most of the time we assume we see the world just as it is; but these examples suggest that we’re highly constrained in what we experience by our own memories. It’s a bit like the world is rehearsed.

By confusing your memory, however, you can counteract this tendency, and perceive the world anew.

Which can be interesting. It comes down to breaking from the comforts of routine. Here are four suggested ways you might commit violence against routine, and thus memory, so as to see the world more clearly.

1) Sleep with your head at the wrong end of the bed: on waking up, your memory will be lost for words and give you a half-second or so of pure perception- where you may notice, for instance, that your curtains are ugly and need replacing.

2) Eat dinner at breakfast time: it’ll be weird, but fun: you’ll perhaps notice that your sense of the difference between morning and evening is based mainly on the distinction between corn flakes and macaroni cheese.

3) Re-arrange your furniture: the room may feel exceedingly different; your bad habits may not recognize the situation any more, so may have difficulty getting going. So you’ll, for instance, actually notice that 80% of the house cup-population is on your bedside table.

4) Go nocturnal, and check out commuters in your new (7 a.m.) evenings. You’ll perhaps notice that they are very strange, and you may reconsider your career on a more permanent basis.

Try one of these activities out- they rarely fail to amuse and inform.

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