"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Paying Attention And Tuning People Out–Why We Can Never Agree On What Is

Perception is a very tricky business; and much has been made recently about the inability of eyewitnesses to agree on what they saw.  There have been a number of scholarly articles recently on memory and how selective it is.  It is well known that eyewitness accounts are usually wrong or conflicting.  That despite the absolute conviction of witnesses that they saw a white male, large ears, and goatee point a gun out the window of a Buick LeSabre and shoot Robert Leggings, they saw no such thing.

Scott Fraser, a forensic psychologist, provided surprising evidence in a recent interview on NPR’s Ted Talks.

Fraser researches what's real and what's selective when it comes to human memory and crime. He focuses on the fallibility of human memory and encourages a more scientific approach to trial evidence. He has testified in criminal and civil cases throughout the U.S. in state and federal courts.

In 2011 Fraser was involved in the retrial of a 1992 murder case in which Francisco Carrillo was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences in prison. Fraser and the team that hired him staged a re-enactment of the night in question, and they showed the testimonies that had put Carrillo in jail were unreliable. After 20 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit, Carrillo was free.

Not only were the testimonies of the eyewitnesses in question, what they said they saw had no bearing whatsoever on reality.

Literature is filled with stories of subjective eyewitness memory.  Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book is a recreation of an actual event:

The Ring and the Book tells the story of a murder trial in Rome in 1698, whereby an impoverished nobleman, Count Guido Franceschini, is found guilty of the murders of his young wife Pompilia Comparini and her parents, having suspected his wife was having an affair with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi…. The poem comprises twelve books, nine of which are dramatic monologues spoken by a different narrator involved in the case… usually giving a different account of the same events, and two books (the first and the last) spoken by the author.

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell is the story of an event told by four different people, all with different recollections of what actually happened; and of course Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all recounted the same the story of Jesus Christ quite differently.  

We all ‘fill in’ memories after the fact.  We may have stored some essential facts or impressions of a long-ago event, and we tend to fill in the blanks based on recollections of family and friends.  It may be that it wasn’t Uncle Fred who threw up on the Persian carpet, but Uncle Pasqual.  We had the scene right, just not the actors.

There is another feature of perception that gets far less attention – tuning out people, places, and events.  Every married man has heard his wife say at one time or another, “I can’t believe you don’t remember.  You were there!”.

Of course we were there, but the events so vividly remembered by our wives meant absolutely nothing to us. I may have heard Fannie Bray tell about her husband’s death, the obsequies, and the emotional tributes at his memorial; but to me Fannie, her husband Bert, the very routine funeral, and predictable elegies were insignificant, unimportant, and irrelevant.  There was no reason for me to click ‘Save’.

There are many technical explanations for this phenomenon.  Women are more perceptive than men, says one, more socially attuned, and less apt to narrowly screen for relevance. Another associates perception with age.  As we grow older we are more concerned about saving our souls than parsing meaningful glances, cross-checking the first signs of dishevelment and mental disorder in an older friend, noticing unsteadiness, or an unusual, out-of-character dress.

Arrogance is the usual culprit.  Self-centered people are concerned only with how they are perceived. The egotist is more interested in talking, not listening.  His purpose is to sway, impress, or convince.

A variation on this theme is dramatic persuasion. An actor wants to evoke tears and has more concern with delivery than content. A good friend of mine has such charm and fluency that he can hold any woman spellbound.  His enjoyment comes only from their attention. “I understand ‘what women want’”, he said; and his crafty soliloquies were part of his actor’s trade. He could never remember the names or even faces of the women he seduced.  He was uninterested in them.

A friend of mine speaks five languages well but he understands them only partially. He is so concerned with sounding good and displaying his own virtuosity (Portuguese personal infinitives and future subjunctive; French tournure de phrase, Russian verbs, German tenses, and Hindi intensifiers) that he pays little attention to the response he gets and misses much of the conversation.

Most savvy husbands know that women are very concerned wit not being taken seriously. Even though they have achieved professional, sexual, and economic parity with men, they are still tethered to patriarchy and male expectations.  In one scene of the movie The Talented Mr. Ripley Jude Law is seen chatting with his sailing friends.  He stops, excuses himself as he goes below to his fiancée,  and says, “Marge maintenance”.  She needs attention.  Marge doesn’t matter.  She only requires periodic servicing to keep her happy and available.

In Revolutionary Road, Mr. Givings turns off his hearing aid so he doesn’t have to listen to the inane chatter of his wife. Most men listen selectively to what interests them, and tune out the rest; but women are still amazed that men remember so little of what they say.

The provocateur is another animal in the perceptual zoo.  He has no convictions and is only interested in eliciting a reaction from his audience.  He, therefore, pays no attention to response. A good friend of mine holds far less conservative views than others think. Getting hysterical comments from the his progressive friends is the only point of the interchange. “They’re so predictable”, he said. “So outraged.  So….indignant.”

The storage capacity of the human brain is for all intents and purposes limitless.  Why, then, do we need selective memory?  Cognitive scientists reply that although there is infinite storage capacity, we have not developed the software to use it.  We are not capable of big data management.  Philosophers argue that selection is the most important feature of human logic. Our ability to view a scene; analyze it for salient and relevant details; categorize, reorder, and synthesize it for the purpose of increasing understanding or building an argument is what makes us intelligent.

In The Da Vinci Code, Tom Hanks is able to view a seemingly random series of letters and see the hidden code within.  He has trained his mind to see patterns and has so internalized the ability that he sees them everywhere. 

My sitar guru listened only to sound and was visually ignorant.  He saw nothing, but heard everything.  One day as we went over a wooden bridge, he suddenly looked up, smiled, and beat the rhythmical signature of the raga Kalyan reproduced by the thump of the car’s tires over the raised joints.  Musicians see musical scores everywhere.  

I am always easily startled when I am at work writing.  I have tunnel vision which excludes everything but the ideas I am considering.  Most people have some ability to concentrate.  Some are easily distracted and others temporarily suspend perception.

Ironically, it is almost impossible to will inattention. We don’t have perceptual hearing aids that we can turn off whenever we please.  Drifting into a daydream and realizing minutes later that we have heard nothing of what the speaker has said; driving along the freeway and suddenly realizing that we are ten miles farther along than when we last checked do not come through volition.  The selective suspension of perception comes from learning to sift, value, and prioritize.  It happens automatically.

It is no surprise that few people agree on what they see; and just like in the case of Browning’s multiple narrators, there is no such thing as ‘the truth’.  It is equally no surprise that few people in a room will even hear or see the same things. Sybil Birnbaum is looking Millie Brand’s new sapphire earrings.

Bob Dickers has eyes only for the breasts of Marsha Harris.  Peter Alms is composing the last paragraph of his report on pea cultivation; and Hamm Figgins is praying to God.

Not only is there no absolute truth, there is no common reality either.

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