"And I Feel Like I've Been Here Before"

Thursday, October 23, 2008

By Wray Herbert

In his 1863 travelogue Our Old Home, Nathaniel Hawthorne described a visit to Stanton Harcourt, a 15th century manor house near Oxford, England. As he stood in the building’s enormous medieval kitchen, the writer recalled, he was washed over by an eerie sensation: “I was haunted and perplexed by an idea that somewhere or other I had seen just this strange spectacle before. The height, the blackness, the dismal void, before my eyes, seemed as familiar as the decorous neatness of my grandmother’s kitchen.”

Hawthorne had never been to Stanton Harcourt before, yet his “memory” was specific and palpable and emotional. Writers from St. Augustine to Dickens to Proust have described similar sensations of having been somewhere before—impossibly—and indeed that is the accepted meaning of the psychological phenomenon commonly known as déjà vu.

And it is common: Fully a third of us report having had a déjà vu experience, and the real number may be much higher. Such experiences have over the years been attributed to everything from past lives to subterranean erotic impulses to neurological disorders, but those ideas have all been discarded. Today there is scientific consensus that déjà vu is a false memory experience: Our brains are registering novel perceptions of the world as old and familiar, even when all evidence says they cannot be.

But why? New insights into the mechanics of memory and cognition are helping to answer that question. The brain is now viewed as something of a hybrid engine, a dual processor that divides its work between rapid, automatic decisions and more deliberate judgments. It toggles back and forth constantly, and as it does it uses two different kinds of recognition: recall and familiarity.

Think of an everyday memory experience. The first kind of recognition is simple recall. You run into a woman at the market who you met at a party the night before, and you clearly recollect that first meeting: “Hi, Annie. We met at Jerry’s party last night, over by the bar.” That’s simple recall; something happened and you remember it pretty much as it happened.

The second kind of recognition is much fuzzier, based only on a vague sense of familiarity. That’s because many of the memories we put down are not finely detailed, but rather just the gist of an experience: Jerry’s party, lots of new people milling around with drinks, not much more in the way of detail. So when you run into Annie at the market, she’s only vaguely familiar. You can’t place her. Do you know her from the mailroom at work?

Déjà vu experiences are just an aberration of this normal recognition experience. Or at least that’s the theory, which psychologists have recently begun testing in the laboratory. Here’s an example. Colorado State University psychologist Anne Cleary had volunteers study a long list of celebrity names. Later on, she showed them a collection of celebrity photographs. Some photos corresponded to the names, but others did not. The volunteers did two things: They tried to identify the celebrities in the photos, and they also said how likely it was that they had studied the name of each celebrity earlier.

The findings were interesting. Even when they could not identify a celebrity by the photo, they often had a sense of which names they had studied earlier and which they had not. That is, they couldn’t identify the source of their familiarity with the celebrity, but they knew the celebrity was familiar to them. Cleary ran the same experiment with famous places, like Stonehenge and the Taj Majal, and got the same result.

Apparently the volunteers had stored at least a trace of memory, but it was sufficiently fuzzy that they weren’t consciously aware of the link to the new experience. But what exactly did they store in memory that would trigger the feelings of familiarity? Cleary suspects that even very subtle features of an experience can be enough to cause a later sense of remembering. In another experiment, she had volunteers study a random list of words: raft, eighty, and so forth. On a later recognition test, some of the new words resembled the earlier words only in their most general shape and sound: Laughed might echo raft, for example, or lady might echo eighty. When old and new words overlapped on this very subtle feature, volunteers again reported a sense of familiarity with the novel word.

Presumably the same illusion can occur with more elaborate perceptions and experiences. As Cleary reports in the October issue of Current Directions of Psychological Science, some people report a sense of familiarity with completely new pictures based only on a visual fragment from an earlier experience. A single geometric shape, for instance, can create the sense that an entire new scene has been experienced before.

That is almost certainly what happened with Hawthorne in the kitchen. Recall that it was the “height” and “blackness” of the room that stirred his global memory of having been there before. Indeed, Hawthorne figured this out himself, without the tools of modern memory research. He later summoned up a dim memory of a poem by Alexander Pope, who had also been moved to write about the cavernous rooms of Stanton Harcourt.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “We’re Only Human” weblog at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. Selections from the blog also appear in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at http://www.sciam.com/.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 12:20 PM 2 Comments

A Recipe for Motivation

Friday, October 10, 2008

By Wray Herbert

One of the most famous American cartoonists of the 20th century was Rube Goldberg, who was widely known for his “Goldberg Machines.” Each of these comical inventions depicted a complex set of “instructions” for completing what should have been a fairly simple everyday task. His Self-Operating Napkin, for example, required a dozen sequential steps involving a parrot, a cigar lighter, a rocket and a sickle, and of course various strings and springs and pendulums.

The cartoons were funny because they poked fun at some fundamental facts of human psychology. People will go to great lengths to avoid effortful tasks; it’s human nature. Just think about sticking to that new exercise regimen or taking a course in statistics. Yet it also doesn’t help to over-explain tasks, to make them more complicated than they need to be. Indeed the opposite may be true: Rube Goldberg’s convoluted “how-to” instructions may make us laugh, but they also leave us feeling exhausted. If that’s what it takes to use a napkin, why bother?

Psychologists are very interested in the complex interplay of effort, motivation and cognitive crunching--the ease with which we think about a task in our minds. Is it possible that the simplicity (or complexity) of how a task is described and processed—its fluid or difficult “feel”—actually affects our attitude toward the task itself, and ultimately our willingness to put our heads down and work?

Two University of Michigan psychologists decided to investigate this idea in their lab. Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz wanted to see if they could motivate a group of 20-year-old college students to exercise regularly—not an easy task. They gave all the students written instructions for a regular exercise routine, but they used a simple but ingenious method to make the how-to instructions either cognitively palatable or challenging: Some got instructions printed in Arial typeface, a plain font designed for easy reading. Others got their instructions printed in a Brush font, which basically looks like it’s been written by hand with a Japanese paintbrush; it’s unfamiliar and much harder to read.

There are a lot of ways to make something mentally palatable, or not. You can used clear and simple language, or arcane vocabulary words; simple sentences or convoluted sentences with lots of clauses. The psychologists chose typeface because it’s easy to manipulate in the lab. After the students had all read the instructions, they asked them some questions about the exercise regimen: how long they thought it would take, whether it would flow naturally or drag on endlessly, whether it would be boring, and so forth. They also queried them on whether they were likely to make exercise a routine part of their day.

The findings were remarkable. Those who had read the exercise instructions in an unadorned, accessible typeface were much more open to the prospect of exercising: They believed that the regimen would take less time and that it would feel more “fluid” and easy. Most important, they were more willing to make exercise part of their day. Apparently, the students’ brains mistook the ease of reading about exercise for ease of actually doing the pushups and crunches, and this misunderstanding motivated them to actually think about a life change. Those who struggled through the Japanese brushstrokes had no intention of heading to the gym; the reading alone tired them out.

Song and Schwarz decided to double-check these results with another experiment, this one involving a completely unrelated activity: cooking. Again they used easy- and hard-to-read typefaces, but in this case the instructions were a recipe for making a Japanese sushi roll. After they had read the recipe, the volunteers estimated how long it would take them to make the dish, and whether they were inclined to do it. They were also asked how much skill a professional cook would need to prepare the sushi roll.

The results were basically the same as before. As reported in the October issue of the journal Psychological Science, those who read the cooking instructions in the mentally challenging script saw the task as time-consuming and requiring a high level of culinary skill; they weren’t apt to try it themselves. They in effect used the alien writing as a proxy for the actual task, and as a result ended up avoiding it. Those with the more digestible instructions were much likely to sharpen their knives and head for the kitchen.

Our brains employ all sorts of tricks and shortcuts to get us through the day, but it’s good to be wary of these automatic judgments. If unchecked, our tendency to confuse thoughts and actions can make dubious choices seem easier and more desirable than they ought to be, or they can discourage us from healthy habits and creative exploration. After all, most of the time using a “self-operating” napkin is just as simple as it appears to be.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, please visit the "We're Only Human" weblog or listen to podcasts at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. Selections also appear in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at www.sciam.com.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 12:18 PM 3 Comments