Verbatim recall

A little while ago, I posted about the zeugma in this sentence from a BBC News report on an Amtrak-mooning event in Rancho Niguel CA:

It features directions to Camino Capistrano, the road where trousers and dignity are dropped each year.

But that wasn’t quite the way the report came to me in the first place. What I heard from Chris Ambidge on soc.motss was, instead, what he described as

the musical phrase “lowering their trousers and their dignity”

Still zeugmatic, but different from the Beeb’s version.

Chris admitted his error of recollection:

What you see in the difference is an ailuropod [Chris is totemically, and sometimes sartorially, a panda] mental short-circuit. I’m mildly impressed that I managed to mis-remember a zeugmatic form. There is little more for me to do than make no reply, up my mind and a dash for the door. [Have some madeira, m’dear!]

I then embroidered (my posting is edited some here):

What’s nice about your misremembering is that you converted the Beeb’s passive version into an active one — turning a more marked variant into a less marked one.

There are experimental results on sentence recall showing that passives are frequently converted into actives, but rarely the reverse. There’s a sense in which the active versions report the “gist” of the originals, and in general recall is very strongly for gist and not for exact wording.

I have no account of the “drop” —> “lower” conversion.

We like to think of our eyes and ears serving as devices for inputting images, visual and auditory, to a recorder. These devices can be subject to error, as can the recorders; the recordings can suffer degradations over time; and the mechanisms for retrieving the recordings can be faulty — so there’s a place for error in this I Am a Camera and My Brain Is a Repository view of perception, memory, and recall. But otherwise the perceptual apparatus and the storage apparatus, in this view, are both essentially passive in nature. (In a different but related metaphor, from Plato, the world is a signet ring and the brain is a block of wax.)

Evidence against such views, attractive though the metaphors underlying them are, has been mounting for quite some time. The counterview: perception and memory are active, creative processes. Israel Rosenfield synthesized modern developments in neurobiology along these lines, for a popular audience, in 1988, in The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain; and there are many excellent presentations of the literature in experimental psychology for general audiences, everyone telling us that memories are actively constructed from the beginning (and are constantly restructured over time and in recall).

Verbatim recall, in particular, is a very chancy thing. In fact, in general, people are no damn good at it (or at precise visual recall or at exact fully textured recollection of events); even those with extraordinary abilities along these lines can exercise them only under special circumstances. (A good thing too; who would want to be Funes the Memorious?)

So we see effects like Chris’s shifting of a passive formulation to an active one, and his replacement of an original expression by a near-synonym.

In more extreme cases, people can dredge up only affective interpretations and not words. People trying to get at the truth of some event by interviewing the participants are often faced with exchanges like the following one, invented from bits of actual experiences:

Interviewer: What happened?

Participant: He dissed me, so I had to waste him.

Interviewer: How did he diss you?

Participant, baffled: I don’t know, he just dissed me!

Interviewer, frustrated: But what did he say, exactly?

Participant, angrily: He dissed me, I just told you that!

More modestly, we are inclined to distort things in recall. A story about me…

My major totem animal is the woolly mammoth. Woolly (or more often, Wooly, to make a little woo-based joke) Mammoth has been one of my favorite pseudonyms for fifteen years. It comes from a New Yorker cartoon by Sam Gross (March 7, 1994, p. 42), a cartoon that speaks to me deeply, because I identify so strongly with the mammoth in it.

The thing is, I remember the caption as

So long as it’s woolly, it’s ok with me.

Sometimes, it’s “that’s ok”, sometimes “fine” instead of “ok”, and sometimes “as long” instead of “so long”, but always something very close to the sentence above.

Unfortunately, that’s not what Gross wrote, as you can see from this image (jazzed up with thrilling blue effects that weren’t in the original):

I actually think that Gross’s version is better, but I have a devil of a time recalling it correctly. Fortunately I have a framed copy of it in my living room (and now this digitalized copy in iPhoto) to consult when I need to refresh my memory.

(Yes, I have stuffed mammoths and all sorts of other mammuthiana, including books and videos about the creatures. The penguins still have a considerable edge over the mammoths, but then they got a 20-year start.)

(Thanks to Ned Deily for creating Le Mammouth Bleu.)

7 Responses to “Verbatim recall”

  1. Martyn Cornell Says:

    As a journalist, transcribing tapes of interviews, I find I quite often type a paraphrase of what was on the tape even though I only heard it 30 seconds earlier. But that may just be me …

  2. J. Levin Says:

    I have to say that not only do I agree that the original caption is funnier, but I also find the whole cartoon with that caption very funny on its own. I appreciate your post as ‘origin story’ as well, as I have often seen the woolly mammoth appellation applied to you, but till now I never knew why.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    To Joel Levin: Well, like Jacob’s brother Esau, I am an hairy man.

    I’ve also viewed a good part of my life as great good fortune based on people’s thinking “As long as he’s [something favored in the context], I don’t ask questions”. I’ve gotten to graze in some pretty fine pastures, despite being a Space Alien (but my Space Alienness is another story).

  4. Like/unlike « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (Sometimes, some people can produce near-verbatim recall.) […]

  5. Fair mammoth ears « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (Note the toppings offered — excess piled on excess.) Ned knows that the woolly mammoth (or, as I usually prefer to write, with the writer of the sign above, wooly mammoth, to catch the little pun on woo) is my major totem animal (explanation here). […]

  6. Pseudonyms « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] woo(l)ly mammoth / w m (in ca) [from a New Yorker cartoon, with a reference to […]

  7. Mammoth matters « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] woolly mammoth is one of my totem animals (these days my primary one): see some history here., so the shirt was much […]

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