Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Cycling Through the Past? Fun with Retrograde Confabulation



There is an interesting phenomenon in the study of long term memory for events (i.e. "episodic memory"), whereby our present state of mind influences memories of the past. Take, for example, feelings and moods. When we're in a sad mood, we tend to remember sad memories; when in a happy mood happy memories. Moreover, should a non-mood congruent memory come to mind - For instance, someone might remind us of a happy memory when we are sad, in an attempt to cheer us up - we are likely to retroactively put a twist to the events, that will bring them in line with our current mood ("No-no, I was secretly miserable at that party!")

This phenomenon (called "mood congruence") extends to feelings toward other people. If we presently dislike a person we were once very much fond of, we might remember their actions in a sinister light, even though at the time we thought those same actions were wonderful.

Of course, human feelings and attitudes are so subjective, one might argue we are not so much changing or distorting the past when we do this, as re-interpreting it. In that regard, language presents an opportunity to study the phenomenon more objectively.

A bilingual person is much more likely to recall events that took place in the language they are speaking (or thinking in) at the time of the recollection. Moreover, when recalling events that took place in the other language, they might occasionally "auto-translate" the memory to the language they are presently using. This happens most often with people who grew up speaking one language, then switched to another later in life - usually due to a move abroad. So, for instance a former Romanian speaker for whom English is now the more dominant language, might find themselves remembering events that took place back in Romania, "auto-translated" into English.  In cases like these, it is clearer that we are in fact adjusting, or distorting, memories from the past to fall in line with what is presently more familiar.

Physical appearance can be another example, at least for those whose memories contain an inbuilt awareness of their physical self.  Let's say you used to be a chubby teenager with long brown hair, and you are now a skinny, spiky-haired blond adult. When "picturing" or "feeling" yourself in past memories, it is possible that your current physical sense of self might replace, or at least compete with, the period-correct one.

In memory research, these types of distortions are examples of "confabulation" - which sounds kind of disordered, except that, at least to some extent, it is part of the normal human memory process. Contrary to what some assume, a memory, once made, is not a "fixed" thing, like a mental recording of an event. Memories of the past are more like works in progress. They are porous, malleable. And in subtle ways they are continually tweaked, as we repeatedly retrieve, rehearse, and share them throughout our lives.

To varying degrees, any aspect at all of our present way of being is liable to seep into old memories, ultimately reshaping them. More often than not, we do not even notice when this happens. But sometimes when the anachronism is obvious, we can catch ourselves in the act. As a multi-lingual, I often catch myself remembering events in the "wrong language." And on more than a few occasions, I've also caught myself inserting bicycles into past events where they have no business of being.

I was remembering an incident today, from years and years back, where I sat on a park bench with a friend and we had an argument. My friend walked away, leaving me there by myself. I had a camera around my neck.  It began to rain.

What I remember next is, getting on my bike, putting the camera in the pannier, and starting to pedal home - the pedals feeling heavy under the cumbersome weight of a possible end to a friendship. This progression of the events came to mind so naturally, that only a good way into it I realised there was no way I could have cycled home: I was not able to ride a bike at the time; I did not own a bike.

Even knowing this, I struggled to un-dig the authentic version of this memory from the real-seeming physical sensation of cycling which replaced it.

It was not a big deal, really. Cycling versus walking did not change the crux of that particular memory. But it was such an obvious distortion, and I had implemented it so casually.

It made me aware that cycling, for me, has attained the status of a dominant language, or dominant state of mind. Not only does it colour my present thoughts and future plans, it also encroaches on memories past. Which I suppose should come as no surprise. Just another cog the "pathology of everyday life."



26 comments:

  1. Human memory is a terrible witness.

    What languages do you speak, if you will permit me to be a bit nosy?



    Wolf.

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    1. My first languages were German and Russian (simultaneously). Then English.

      I've learned a few others along the way (French, Hebrew, Ukrainian, Italian), but am out of practice. I've been learning Irish for the past year and a half.

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  2. Gosh, that is a lot of thinking going on there. I shall go back and reread your post in more detail later. I may be a bit off beam as it is not really a memory or mood phenomenon, but I did want to mention one brain peculiarity I experience and that is my habit, as a long time user of shorthand (secretary / PA by profession) to turn almost all dialogue I hear into a series of squiggles, dots and dashes in my head. I do this whilst watching television, listening to the radio or talking to someone face to face. I don't do it by choice - far from it - I frequently find it very annoying - particularly as I often have to pause to go back and correct whether a squiggle is above, on or below the line or a mark is heavy or light! Wish I hadn't thought of this habit as it will now drive me mad all evening. I am not unique, btw, I've had other shorthand users say they experience this too.

    With regard to memories, you are spot on and I'm glad it's not just me! We are complicated beings!

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  3. "To various degrees, any aspect at all of our present way of being is liable to creep into old memories..."

    So for anyone who mines memory to provide an armature for art or for others that draw or write to make sense of memory, it's nothing new to think our memories intrude into our present way of being but it's harder to remember that it works the other way 'round. So this "Fun with Retrograde Confabulation" certainly complicates things, making one have to wrestle with questions about ones motives, integrity and self awareness. Something about how you expressed this seems to be from a new and helpful angle.

    Excuse me while I slip off for a little think...

    Spindizzy

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    1. Was just thinking about drawing this morning and liking the idea that it's a rotational kind of thing….it uses rotation to make what I know into what I don't….it's always interesting. I dunno, this probably has nothing to do with this post ;)

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  4. Interesting. Especially your take on cycling; that it has become a "dominant language" rather than an activity. I certainly recognise the phenomenon of remembering conversations, and even things I've read or heard, like films, in a different language. There's a particular film I saw in Poland, it was an Italian film with Polish subtitles. I don't speak Italian and my Polish at the time I saw the film wasn't that great, but in my memory the film is alternately in Polish with English subs or in English with Polish subs! I've actually had to watch it again to confirm the dialogue is only in Italian.

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    1. It's hard to explain, but I do feel that cycling is a "physical language" of sorts.

      Watching films in a foreign language with subtitles can be an uncanny experience. My husband had never really watched foreign films, until a couple of years ago he fell in love with Scandinavian cinema/tv. He now constantly watches films in Swedish and Danish, and his feedback is that not only does he remember the films in English afterwards, but he even experiences them in English to begin with - his mind somehow merging the text of the subtitles with the voices of the actors. Not sure it is the same for me, but I thought that was pretty interesting.

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    2. One thing is to never, ever watch a foreign film with a native speaker. They will complain the entire time correcting the subtitles, they will not let you watch!

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    3. Just imagine how the non-cycling folks feel watching movies with us that feature bicycles or cycling. ("In real life, he would never ride with the saddle that low/ handlebars at that angle/ without a chain!")

      There was one film I watched with some friends, can't remember what it is now, where the main character was always pictured riding her bike, for which she even had a cute pet name - except that they changed the bike half way through the film, and then switched back again to the original bike toward the end (they must have filmed some scenes with one, some with the other). Of course, no one noticed or cared but me. And every time I'd whisper-wail "but it's not the same biiiiike!" there was a collective "shhhhhh!"

      Generally though, I try to be good.

      Except when it comes to films with subtitles, of course.

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    4. Weird, when I watch a subtitled film I also "hear" the subtitles in the actors voices. Perhaps similarly, when I read a book I "hear" the characters in distinct voices.

      Also, hahah, anytime my friends/family are watching a show with me and a bike appears, everybody turns and glares at me. Preemptively shutting me up, for they know I cannot resist a running commentary on the bike's every detail. It's a sickness, I tell ya.


      Wolf.

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    5. Ever hear the expression "Talk to me with your legs"? It ain't just about speed or power. There is a large vocabulary contained in the structure and articulation of a pedal stroke.

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    6. I think those are two different phenomena though. Changing the bike, riding it without a chain, etc, are ordinary continuity errors that happen in most films (even the slick, high-budget ones from famous directors) and that we don't tend to notice unless the error is more interesting to us than the film. Switching the language in your memory or even while watching the film is the kind of interpolation of memory and reality which relates to how we process and understand communication.

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  5. Next time I find myself trying to explain what makes this blog unique, I will just send a link to this post!

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  6. Is a trumatic memory more strongly printed in the Brain than a happy memory? Your example Bring the former.

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    1. I would not categorise my example as traumatic.

      But speaking generally, yes, traumatic memories tend to be stronger. There is even a term - "flashbulb memory" - coined to describe exceptionally vivid, "imprinted" memories of this type.

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  7. I think the only thing that makes cycling a separate language of its own is how far the practice of cycling is removed from those who don't "get" it. Or, perhaps, that is a symptom? In any case, trying to explain why you like riding a bike to someone who doesn't enjoy it certainly has the effect of making you feel like you're speaking a foreign language. There is some invisible barrier between you that is difficult to cross, some indescribable thing that makes "cycling" different to you than it is to others.

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  8. A request, if I may! Could you please hook up a tag for all the psych-related posts? There is one about shoes I would love to read again. And another one about scents. Much obliged :))

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    1. Sure. I've tagged a few, but there are probably others that I'll find and tag later.

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  9. I've been riding continuously since age 7, doing long rides as soon as I had that first bike. First memories start about age 3 and usually involve bikes. Memories that do not involve bikes at all- what would that be?

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  10. Like the poster above, my earliest memories involve bikes. I even distinctly remember sitting on the back of my Dad's bike as a toddler, which he insists I am too young to actually remember!

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  11. Ah, the price of wearing different hats, as pootling about above mentioned.

    In my freelance editor life, one of my favourite jobs is composing back-of-book indexes. It's not everyone's idea of fun, but it suits me. Another way to approach the book, and have a little look at the skeletal structure of the thing.

    After the movie Master and Commander came out, I discovered the whole world of Patrick O'Brian — brilliant books; can't recommend them enough. Usually, I can drop into a novel and the rest of the world falls away and I come up for air hours later. Most refreshing. One of the novels, I was trying to read and somehow was just becoming more and more twitchy. Could not figure out why the usual magic wasn't working, until I realized that at the back of my mind I was trying to index all these nautical terms that I knew nothing about, and getting increasingly stressed about it. Time to take off the indexer hat!

    I, too, "hear" subtitles in English, and later remember the movie in English. Interestingly, when I read the O'Brian books, I hear and see Russell Crowe as Aubrey, but I have no conflict with Maturin, who is described as short, dark-haired, and "disreputable" in the books and yet played by Paul Bettany in the movie. Selective overlap?

    In terms of cycling as a language, I expect it's more poetry than prose. Something about the rhythm and the cadence and the gentle whir of the chain. I find that going for a ride works wonderfully to clear my mind, as if the language of the process takes over and pushes out the little voice in my head that's nagging or whining or whatever. (Sadly, there are times when I've waited too long and the little voice is in full cry. Then, it can be hard to shut the bitch up, and instead of the lovely calm, I get the litany chanted again and again — granted in rhythm, but still not good — and if I don't notice it soon enough, I can work myself up to a good mad before I'm through. Only thing for it when that happens, is a piece of chocolate and a little ride.)

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post.

    Best,
    Lil Bruin

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  12. In the previous post the first language I picked up on was in the photos. I saw a rider with a lot of bend in the knee when the crank was at bottom dead center. I saw a foot flat on the pedal with crank at bottom dead center. I saw a saddle with significantly more setback than on other LBs. And I saw a level saddle. That was all seen as quick as I could scroll through the photos, mostly it was seen in the first second the page was open.

    That is the language I speak. That is what conveys meaning. In previous threads it has been made forcefully clear that V does not wish any criticism or interpretation of how she sits on a bike. But this is language. This is how riders speak to each other. And I liked what I saw, liked what I heard.

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    1. Very interesting.

      I accept your criticism, without agreeing with it. I think that's fair.

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  13. Neat picture. I dig it.

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  14. I like when your neuro-psych background comes out in a post. Speaking of memories, do you ever miss working in that field. I'm currently thinking of going back into psych nursing, even though my previous experience was "crazy", and I did get out of that environment, there are some fascinating memories of it all. Albeit, I would be working in a different environment this time. On a cycling related note, my commute would increase a few miles with a moderate hill thrown in at the end towards the office.

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  15. I've just come across a Dr Hutch article in Cycling Weekly that mentions the same process (I was actually looking for a photo of Robert Millar in a KotM jersey).

    http://www.cyclingweekly.co.uk/news/latest-news/dr-hutch-tour-de-france-used-better-260042
    "When I look back at the Tours de France of my youth, I am struck by a number of things. For instance, I can remember distinctly sitting on the floor in front of the family TV watching things like Robert Millar being first over the summit of the Col de la Bonette in 1993.

    My recollection doesn’t actually include sculpting his heroic-if-grumpy likeness with Lego while I watched, but I was about that age. Except I wasn’t. I was actually almost 20. Equally, when Stephen Roche won in 1987 I remember reading about it on a holiday that didn’t happen till 1992. It bothers me that all the races from that era seem to blur in my memory. It makes me feel old.


    Read more at http://www.cyclingweekly.co.uk/news/latest-news/dr-hutch-tour-de-france-used-better-260042#dttZ7FHTfhJ2CdHI.99"

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