An Interesting Exploration of Memory
Submitted for your consideration...
"Help!" he exclaimed. "The emergency brake in my car is gone!"
"Gone? Meaning that it's not working?"
"No! It's gone! It's no longer even there! I went to go step on the emergency brake pedal while I was at the grocery and it was gone! So is the little handle you pull to release it! I was hoping that you'd tell me that you had removed it when you were working on my car recently and had forgotten to reinstall it."
"No, I didn't touch your e-brake." This is when something struck me. This friend drives a Honda. "Waitaminnit," I thought. "Hondas don't use foot-pedal e-brakes. They use handbrakes located between the seats near the shifter."
"I've had this car for 12 years and I use the e-brake all the time," he explained. "I know that it's supposed to be there! This is like some kind of Twilight Zone episode!"
I asked him to humor me. "Do me a favor and look next to the seat by the shifter. Check to see if there is a lever there."
"There's no lever," he said. "I know I'm not crazy! I've had this car for 12 years and I know where the e-brake is!"
Since he was convinced that it was supposed to be a foot pedal, I told him that I didn't know what to tell him and that my wife and I were on the way over to his house to check it out. Since I was 99.99999% certain that the e-brake was located between the seats on his car, Linda and I were a little bit worried about our friend since he had made such a significant error.
Lifting the fog
It took us about 25 minutes to get to his house from where we were. On the way over, I asked my wife to go talk to our friend when we got there and I'd check out the car. When we arrived, Linda proceeded up the steps to the living room, and I went down to the garage.
I opened the driver side door, and his interior looked exactly like the one in the picture. What was really interesting about it was that the parking brake was set! Yes, this means that he drove home from the grocery, thinking that his parking brake was physically gone, then when he parked the car, he subconsciously and automatically pulled the e-brake lever to set the brake!
I went back inside the house and asked my friend to come down to the car.
"Don't tell me it's there," he said, incredulously.
"Just come down to the car," I replied. We went back to the car, and I opened the driver door. I reached in and pointed to the set parking brake. "Dude," I said in my gentlest tone, "your parking brake is located here."
"But I remember the pedal! It can't have been more that two weeks ago that I used the pedal!"
"Dude, something has gone wrong in your memory. I think you're remembering the location of the e-brake from your last car. Your last car was a Dodge, and American-made cars still use the foot pedal design in some cars, and they were much more prevalent 12 years ago when you last drove that car."
"So I'm losing my mind," he said matter-of-factually.
"No, I think you just had a 'brain fart.' It happens to all of us from time to time."
"I'm going to have my doctor check my neurotransmitter levels," he said in a worried tone. "This is really troublesome." I could see him getting really worried about this.
"Let's go upstairs and talk about it," I suggested. He agreed and we went upstairs and joined Linda who was waiting there for us.
Delving into the issue
I explained to my friend that I think he just had a minor "rewriting" of some information in his brain, and that it happens to us all. Further, I told him that unless it happens again, to consider this a fluke.
I work in the IT industry. I regularly encounter computers that will do something strange and unexpected only once. I often explain to users that a computer is "allowed" to do something strange every now and then, but if the problem recurs, we need to look deeper. So, I quickly drew up an analogy to explain what I think happened.
NOTE: This is rather geeky content. If you have experience with computer programming, this will make perfect sense. Otherwise, it might not...Sorry.
See the following tables for how information about my car is stored in my brain:
|EBrakeLocation||TblJeepFacts.EBrakeLocation||Center Console (NONFUNCTIONAL)|
|EBrakeLocation||TblJeepFacts.EBrakeLocation||Center Console (NONFUNCTIONAL)|
In the table of information about today's car (I was driving the Jeep), you can see that all the details point to facts about the Jeep, and that everything is consistent, and in the information that is subconsciously stored also has the same, consistent data.
Here's what I believe was stored in my friend's brain:
|EBrakeLocation||TblDodgeFacts.EBrakeLocation||D river Foot-well (FUNCTIONAL)|
|EBrakeLocation||TblHondaFacts.EBrakeLocation||Center Console (FUNCTIONAL)|
As you can see, the pointer in TblFriendTodaysCarInfo.EBrakeLocation is not pointing to TblHondaFacts.EBrakeLocation, but rather to TblDodgeFacts.EBrakeLocation. So, when my friend attempted to retrieve the information about where the e-brake was located, he pulled up the wrong information.
Every time our brain looks up information, it does a consistency check to make sure it's not in error. If it finds an error, it will either correct it or alert our conscious minds to it and we will realize we were thinking about the wrong car. This usually occurs because there's something that is inconsistent about the information retrieved. Had his memory of the location of the e-brake pedal contained something impossible like "in the trunk," his brain would have tossed it out and either found the right information, or alerted his consciousness that there was a problem.
Since the information in TblFriendTodaysSubconsciousCarInfo.EBrakeLocation is correct, when my friend came into the garage and parked his car, he automatically grabbed the e-brake handle and pulled it, without ever realizing it.
This one little tiny change in a neuron somewhere in his brain is what created all this commotion.
My own experiences with memory and suggestibility
During the discussion of what happened and my supposition of what happened in his brain, I related a story to him that actually happened to me.
On one evening, late at night, we were out driving like a bunch of crazy assholes -- much like you'd expect any trio of 16-18 year-old males to be doing. We were on a road that had two 90-degree turns back-to-back. We were hot-dogging through those turns going WAY too fast for the handling characteristics of that car. In the middle of the second turn, we lost control, and slid off the road down an embankment into a guy's yard. I'm sure the guy was quite used to cars landing in his yard, based on the scarring in the earth there.
Once we came to rest, we quickly got out of the guy's yard. We drove down the road and the car was making a strange rubbing sound. We got out. We discovered that we had bent the front right fender far enough to contact the tire. I placed my foot on the crease that was sticking out and pressed it back in. This made the fender stop touching the tire, and made the car drivable.
Frank's parents were kinda strict and uptight. Frank was freaking out. He was positive that his parents would kill him. And, having met his parents, I was worried that they might actually do it. So, we decided to come up with a story to explain how we went off the road.
We concocted a story that somebody had been harassing us and we were trying to get away from them. We further embellished the story to say that they had cut us off in the middle of that turn by passing us, which caused Frank to swerve and lose control. We took the next 20 minutes to flesh out the story a bit more so that it was believable.
We were going south on State Route 4 (a four-lane highway). When we were getting close to Greg's house, Frank says to me, "Chad, take the wheel. I don't feel too good." I reached over from the passenger seat and the moment my hand touched the wheel, Frank passed out. His head hit the driver's window HARD, so I knew that he wasn't joking around. We were careening down this road with an unconscious driver, going 35-40MPH, and with me (a 16-year-old kid) holding the wheel and I only had my temporary driving permit.
Thankfully, I discovered at that time that I am one of those "calm in the face of danger" people. I calmly reached up, turned on the emergency blinkers, remembered that the e-brake in that car was non-functional and skipped trying to use it. I then put the automatic transmission into neutral, unclasped my seat belt and climbed over Frank's bulky frame so that I could reach the brake pedal. Once I got the car stopped, I reached over and put the car in park, and breathed a sigh of relief. I had managed to stop the car without wrecking.
Greg and I moved Frank to the passenger seat and I drove the car to Greg's house. His mother is a nurse, and we were only about 300 yards from his house at the time. We got Frank inside, and Greg's mom decided to call the EMS. By the time they got there, Frank was lucid and talking normally. He refused to be taken to the hospital and the squad guys said that he seemed OK. At that point, we decided that we needed to take Frank home.
Since I had my temporary permit, I drove Frank's car with him in the passenger seat, and Greg and his mother followed us to give me a ride home after taking Frank home. Frank was still kinda out of it, and was resting with his head against the window. I guess he was going in and out of consciousness, but I didn't realize it at the time.
All of a sudden, Frank sat up in the seat screaming and flailing his arms. He was clearly out of his mind. After about 15 seconds of this, he passed out cold and we decided to take him to the hospital that was only a few miles away. We called his parents and they came to the hospital. We told them the concocted story and they believed it. His parents took him home the next morning and that was the end of it. Greg and I continued to hang out with Frank, and we continued to drive around like crazy assholes.
After telling all this story to my friend, he looked at me like "OK, how does this factor in?"
I told him that about 6 months after the incident, Frank, Greg and I were sitting around a table chatting. Frank remembered back to that night and said "I can't believe that the guy ran us off the road like that."
Greg and I looked at each other. Could Frank be messing around? I told him that he was wrong, and related the real story to him. He swore up, down, side-to-side and on about 15 people's graves that a car had cut us off in that turn. He described the car. It was clear that he had actually stored the concocted story in his memory as though it were reality.
It took Greg and I quite a while to convince him that we were right and that he was remembering wrong. I surmised that in his stressed state because he was worried about how his parents would react, he became hyper suggestible and when we concocted the story, it got recorded as "real."
I explained to my friend that sometimes our brains do strange things. We talked about how it's possible that your brain can have a small error that is undetected because the error is consistent. We left soon after that, and I reassured him one last time saying "I tell users this all the time: you're allowed to have a fluke every now and then. If it happens again, we need to look deeper."