Your Memory Is Bad. And So Is Everyone Else’s

Videos by Rare

Videos by Rare

Have you ever come away from a conversation and wondered where the other person’s mind was the whole time? You know you both heard the same words, but you feel like you were on two totally different planets? Or maybe you remember something from your past completely differently than, say, your significant other or best friend. There’s a reason for this, and you should always question your perceptions.

Scientists have been studying memory and perception for ages. What they’ve concluded at this point is that everyone’s memory is bad, including yours and mine. This is because we, as humans, have implicit biases and cognitive biases. We can’t help it. These biases form naturally over time. But because our biases are primary factors in the formation of our perceptions, that also means that our perceptions are often wrong.

Why Should You Question Your Perceptions?

Art Historian and author of Visual Intelligence sat down with BigThink+ and talked about how she teaches visual intelligence to people. One of the first things she does is bring up an old social media controversy.

That controversy was centered around a dress that a woman named Cecilia Bleasdale bought for her daughter Grace’s wedding. It was 2015.

Cecilia sent pictures of three different dresses to Grace and said she bought “the third one.” Grace asked if she bought the “white and gold one” and her mom replied, “No, it’s blue and black.” Grace told her mom that she should see the doctor if she thought it was blue and black. And within a matter of days, different people got a hold of the picture and shared it around social media. The entire internet seemed to have an opinion on what color the dress was, including Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift. Some saw white and gold and some saw blue and black (it was actually the latter). Dubbed one of the most influential moments of 2015 by Twitter, the dress controversy is still talked about today.

The reason for the different color perceptions of the dress is due to how eyes perceive light. Wired explains this in detail. The brain sends signals based on which colors it ignores, and then it sticks with its original perceptions.

Herman told Big Think that the reason she brings up the dress controversy isn’t because she cares about it at all.

“While this is a dumb dress, I don’t really worry about whether you see it as white and gold or blue and black,” she explained. “My concern is when you’re sitting in the meeting, you’re in the operating room, you’re questioning a suspect and two of you walk away with a fundamentally different perception of what you just observed. That’s my concern.”

The dress controversy is a great example of first impression bias. Our brains are wired to process information as quickly as possible and then create decisions based on our initial thought processes. This can happen rapidly — anywhere from 1/10th of a second to a minute, usually. And while this phenomenon can be a good thing (it can help reduce extraneous information and help us focus on one thing), it can also mislead us.

Another type of bias is cognitive bias. We develop biases based on previous experiences and those shape our perceptions of the world. Cognitive biases usually take longer to form than first impression biases. They can occur as the result of past relationships, conversations, and other experiences.

Our brains contain neurons which send signals around to each other, much like electrical circuits. When we repeat the same thoughts over and over, our brains create shortcuts via synaptic connections. So, for instance, 2+2=___ may have been imprinted in your brain at a young age. It doesn’t take long for most people to complete the equation. Similarly, stereotypes are thought processes that form synaptic connections in our brains. And those stereotypes, like other cognitive biases, can mislead our perceptions.

Examples of cognitive biases include confirmation bias, inattentional blindness, self-serving bias, and availability bias. They are all forms of erroneous thinking.

Herman recommends that people consult one another and engage in further conversation via forms of collaboration. By asking what other people see and perceive, we can test our own minds and memories for mistakes.

So, next time you’re wondering why your family member or coworker seems to be on a completely different page based on the same visual or auditory inputs, engage them in a follow-up conversation. Find out what each of you missed or interpreted differently. It’s always good to question your perceptions.

What do you think?

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