Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Memories...can we trust them?

Elizabeth Loftus: The fiction of memory | Video on

I doubt that there's a human on the planet who has never come a-cropper of faulty memory.  There's the small stuff, of course, like a forgotten phone number, the grocery item that always seems to fall off the mental list (toilet paper....either I buy six more packages than I need, or I have not a roll in the house and company coming), the kid (sorry, Jess) left sitting in her horse's stall one night because I forgot she was at the barn.  You know how it goes.

Perhaps the worst thing about memory is its revisionist tendencies.  Of course we don't micromanage our recollections to boost our own self image.  Nah.  Not us.  We humans are perfect little recording devices ready to spew forth details of past events and past transgressions by fellow humans at the drop of an argument.  But how much of what we remember is real, and how much is fabricated from whole cloth in the recesses of our squirrelly little brains?

If research is to be believed, the vast majority of our memories are mental junk mail.  We'll swear to them, of course, but put two people in the same space, let them see the same event, then ask for details without allowing them discussion time to firm up a middle ground, and the stories will be considerably different.  If you're not familiar with the selective attention experiment called "The Invisible Gorilla", you can refresh your stellar memory here.

It is for this reason that I finally concluded that video recording my riding exploits would be an excellent plan.  Video doesn't lie.  Sadly.  I was going to include a small sample here, but I swear the camera wasn't actually taking photos of my ride on Dolly.  That was some other bubble-butted slouch on that high-headed animal.  My ride, as I recall, was spot on. Dolly was on the bit and lifted beautifully.  My position was perfection.  Really.  I swear to it.

Dolly don't pass no judgment on nobody....
unless, of course, it's that one-eyed horse sneaking a bite of her hay
forcing her to be judge, jury, and executioner.

Why do we confabulate and obfuscate to the level that we do?  The answer harks back to my favorite concept, Sphere of Reality.  Even were we each to be blessed with perfect eyesight and a memory worthy of a spotlight on the Science Network, we would still not agree on the details of any event.  Every experience is naturally filtered like spring water through the nooks and crevasses created in our worlds by our individual experiences.  Our histories write part of our stories. We may make up details as we go along, but we see things through the colored glasses given to us with our teething rings and polished by decades of staring through them unencumbered by reality.  Add that we are hard-wired to defend our egos at every turn, and we are toast.

My ride on Dolly (or the other ones I've videoed on various other mounts) felt good because my muscles called on their own memories (also perfect...*hack, cough*) and put me in perfect alignment and balance.  I did exactly as my last instructor bade me to do because I remember every word she said some...uh...three years ago was it?  I know I need to fight the creases in my breeches.

Or was it that I needed to make more creases?  Or were the creases in the wrong place?  Was I too arched or not enough?  I swear I remembered it perfectly last month.

I could go on with examples of times when our attention seems to have been taking a leak behind a shrub while the action is happening.  What exactly did the seller say about that horse's proclivity for bucking?  Was it a yea or a nay?  How old was that horse?  Did she say he was trained by Billy Collins?  No...wait...he's a poet isn't he? What was that guy's name?  She did say she'd throw in the Albion saddle, didn't she?  And something about a dog....

As I was considering this topic, I sparked my memory of an incident at a show a bunch of years ago.  There was an accident, and a horse had to be euthanized.  It took some time for me to recall the owner's name, though the horse's came to me immediately.  And I could clearly see a slo-mo replay of the horror.  But then the details got a little fuzzy.  What did I do?  Was I the one who cut the tie, or was I just standing there watching?  Who was with me?  Why was the horse left standing for so long?  Someone needed to be contacted, but who?  I allowed my mind to fill in the blanks and came up with a passable eyewitness account of the episode, but I'd be willing to bet cash money that not another spectator to the event saw the same things.

When we work with our horses, it's easy for us to overwhelm our senses and wind up filling in the blanks in a most unrealistic way.  Given our tendency to act on our beliefs about what's real and what isn't, this can be a most hazardous approach for us and our horses.  A short video appeared on Facebook this morning showing a mounted officer of some sort having trouble with his horse.  The trouble escalated quickly into a possibly dangerous but highly entertaining crash into the shrubbery.  The video was funny and kind of poignant, but it was the comments that really brought this topic into the light of day.  I was just a bit surprised by how differently the commentors had viewed the episode.  What each of them found of vital importance and worthy of note was different, sometimes in direct conflict with each other, and in each case I found that I had to go watch the video again to confirm that those things had actually happened because I'd missed them entirely.

So, Thinking Horsemen, it's time to fess up and get over the need to be perfect.  How you saw your morning ride or the show you just watched or anything else isn't the same as what the guy sitting next to you saw.  In fact, the guy next to you might well have been texting and missed the whole thing, forcing him to make up a story to cover that lapse.  You just never know.  What you can take to the bank is that judging is not a good thing to do to each other when we can't even remember where we left the cat and whether the milk wound up in the fridge or in the glassware cabinet.  Cut yourselves and everyone else a little slack.  Somewhere in the middle lies the truth, and you can't see it with your nose in the air.

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