Most of us only remember about 20% of what we hear, we’re told. While we may think that our children have perfected this selective filter of “in one ear and out the other”, in fact most of us do not really take in much of what goes in. Some of this is the reality that you cannot process everything: if your brain didn’t discard most stimuli without thinking about it, you would never get past what was directly in front of you. Think of it as a very elegant firewall that discards packets based on some simple rules. There have been some studies in brain damaged patients who actually do see, hear, smell and feel everything. They can’t handle it. It’s maddening. Although we talk about wanting to be more aware, we risk a breakdown if we really did it.
What interested me, though, was the thought that you can only assume that people remember 20% of what you tell them, and the speaker doesn’t get to choose the 20%. I’ve always had problems with talking to people about “important things”. I remember about 70-90% of anything that is told to me (it’s like having a parsing audio recorder in my head) and I always assumed that everyone else worked this way. When someone acted like I hadn’t said something I clearly told them two weeks ago, I figured they were simply stubborn. No, they really didn’t “hear” what I had said; that is, they didn’t store it, not necessarily because it wasn’t important but because they don’t store most of what they hear. I’m some sort of freak.
I’ve known that I’m odd in this respect at least since college. Early on, I realized that if I simply went to class and listened, I didn’t actually have to do much of the reading. I simply sat in every class and got mostly As on tests. Of course, that doesn’t work in differential equations, which explained my grade. I should have realized that my descending grades in calculus classes were inexorably leading to that big “F”. A smarter person would have realised that he had very few mathematical genes and quit at the C in Calc III.
It always took me longer to read than my peers and I’ve only recently realized that it was because I was actually trying to understand the piece, rather than simply get through it with the basic points. My geophysics professor once told me that he actually preferred having me in class, even though it always came harder for me. According to him, I would sit there looking stunned for weeks and then, suddenly, a light would go off in my head and I would understand the entire concept backwards and forwards. I had mastered it while my peers simply got it enough to get by. The problem with that is that I’m useless until I’ve mentally mastered the area. That may explain my math grades.
He may have been right. For me, thinking about something is never straightforward, a logical progression from one point to another. Instead, it is a gathering of things I’ve heard or seen or read from the past (I swear I often pull up things I learned in high school 20 years ago) until suddenly, there’s the answer.
I can’t say whether it was screenwriter Scott Frank or director Jodie Foster who came up with the scene in Little Man Tate, but it provided a great visual representation. In it, Fred, the mathematical prodigy, is sitting in the audience while a mathematical competition is going on. A question is given (probably about the square root of some outrageous number). In Fred’s mind, numbers swirl about chaotically until WHAM! there’s the answer, which he embarrassingly shouts out. He didn’t go through a process to get the number: it simply happened. He could probably go through the proof but that’s not how he got there. Mathematicians apparently often get to answers in this way, in this sudden burst of knowledge, and then have to work backward from the answer to the proof.
A study of how a musical idiot savant memorizes music showed that he performed much better when the music was organized in certain ways. Certain atonal forms frustrated him, while he excelled more traditional melodic ones, almost perfectly reproducing upon his first hearing. They compared his results with the results of another savant who could say what day of the week a particular date landed on. Both seem to be using a series of internal algorithms that shortcut the process.
Why is any of this interesting? Because I wonder if all of this has direct relation to the idea of M?tis, the Greek idea of skilled or experiential knowledge. I’ve been having to make bread lately and I realize that the reason that I do not make good bread is because I don’t have the mētis of dough. I don’t really know when it has been kneaded enough, what the different signals of smell, texture and things I don’t even have terms for mean. People who make bread will do so through a complex process where they simply know when things are right. I’m not sure that it is simply that they have internalized the rules. I think that they have developed responses to complex sensory signals that allow them to adjust for their particular situation. Their skills would probably dive a bit if they moved from location or even that oven. Something has been stored in their memories but it may be non-verbal. (Pre-cognitive? That terms just sounds silly.)
I wonder if part of m?tis is the Little Man Tate phenomenon, this emergence of an answer from chaos. If it is, then we can never truly get at it. We can gather data but the pattern is unconsciously gotten.
Image Credit: Old watch mechanism. © Günay Mutlu — iStock.