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9:36am on Wednesday, 13th July, 2011:

Repeating an Anecdote


During a taxi ride yesterday, I had recourse to relate this anecdote to my fellow passengers.

(Pause to allow you to go off and read the anecdote).

When I got home, I re-read what I'd written about the incident at the time and noticed a number of discrepencies between what I said in the taxi and what actually happened. I said that the guy had stopped smoking 10 minutes earlier whereas it should have been 15. I said he'd been in the USA for 2 weeks when it was probably more like 3 or 4. I said he saw ghosts but in fact he saw fairies and leprechauns; I said he saw them all the time but he didn't say that (although I distinctly recall his saying he could see some on the flight, so I can understand where I gained that impression). I said they led him away from his seat handcuffed, but they didn't actually cuff him until he was off the plane.

I also messed up my description of what happened after the flight, which I didn't blog but have now had time to think about more. I said he was a murderer who had gone to the US to sort himself out, which is actually true, he was: I found out from a short newspaper article a couple of days later that he'd absconded from some secure mental institution where he'd been held. He had told me on the flight he'd "done something wrong" but was fine now that he'd had chance to work things through so it was OK to return to the UK; I didn't mention this in the original blog post because I didn't know when I wrote it that the "something wrong" was a bit more significant than, say, being rude to his grandmother. Also, the way I remembered this when I told the anecdote yesterday, he'd murdered someone like a fortnight earlier and then gone to the USA; having thought about it, he probably did it several years earlier. That said, there was some kind of court case ongoing because I remember deciding not to blog that I'd found out he was a murderer lest it was sub-judice. I never did find out his name, because the newspaper article I read (which was very short — two column inches or so) didn't mention it either, perhaps for the same reason. It simply said that officials had detained a man arriving at Heathrow from New York and that he was a murderer; I'll know later today or tomorrow whether it said he was a "convicted murderer" or that he was "wanted for murder" — it'll take me that long to dredge up the exact line from my memory. I assume therefore that the passport he had was stolen, because it's unlikely he'd have had one himself. I had a scoot around the Internet yesterday evening trying to track down the case, but I couldn't find anything that really matched the details.

It's weird the way memory works. I'm perfectly capable of recalling the exact details of what happened, given time, but not given time and some distance from the episode being related, I recall the salient details and effectively reconstruct the anecdote from that. When I was doing my PhD I read some Artificial Intelligence papers about memory, which talked about semantic, episodic, short-term and reconstructed memory, reconstructed being fine in AI but not for humans because it's possible to reconstruct it wrongly and then the reconstruction gets stored as episodic memory so you remember it as if it actually happened. The exemplar here was Piaget, who vividly recalled a man's attempt to abduct him from his pram when he was two which failed because his nurse beat the would-be abductor off; it was only when he was 15 and his former nurse got religion and confessed she'd made the whole story up that he realised he was remembering visually something that had never happened.

For me, I know when I'm reconstructing memories, but I have a strange relationship with the reconstructed memory. I can tell whether or not the general impression of the reconstruction is in line with the actuality, and some of the details (from which the memory is reconstructed) I will remember with absolute confidence; however, the other parts of the memory are a sort of "potentiality" that I treat as true yet nevertheless harbour the lingering suspicion could be false. I know I've filled in the gaps; sometimes I've done it correctly and sometimes incorrectly, but in either event I've remained true to the overall thrust of the memory. I knew I'd blogged the anecdote I related yesterday, so I looked it up to see where I'd diverged from it. I'd done so in quite a few places, it seems.

So, what I said wasn't exactly true, but it wasn't a deliberate lie either. It was probably about average for anecdotal recall.

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Copyright © 2011 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).