The Casual Blog

Tag: memory

Strawberries, memory flaws, driverless cars, manufacturing, massage, and Il Trovatore

The strawberries from the Raleigh farmers’ market were good this week — firm but not too much so, and fairly juicy. I put quite a few in my breakfast smoothies (together with kale and other nourishing things), and also made a point to taste them in their unprocessed state. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that the strawberries of years ago were sweeter. Are strawberries losing their taste little by little, like tomatoes before them? Or is this just memory playing tricks?

It’s unsettling to think that memory is unreliable. It is such a vital part of our interior lives, of our concepts of our ourselves. But it is highly prone to error. Thousands of Americans “remember” being abducted by aliens. Many others recall, after extensive coaching by incompetent therapists but without any confirming evidence, being sexually abused by their parents. In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a swing at explaining these and other social-psychological debacles involving strongly felt, but completely wrong memories.

Tavris and Aronson explain that complex memories are not a literal or objective recordings of events. There is no place in the brain where everything that happens to us is stored. Our brains hold selected vivid highlights of events, which we mix together with other knowledge or impressions to construct storylines. These storylines can, especially when repeated many times, come to feel like literal truth. The “mistakes” of the book title refers to our tendency to construct the storylines according to our own biases and tendencies towards self-justification.

Tavris and Aronson give a lively, readable account of the theory of cognitive dissonance, which drives us to reduce internal discomfort by ignoring information that conflicts with strongly held beliefs. They convinced me that there are systematic flaws in our mental functioning, even when we are healthy and operating normally. This is, as I say, unsettling, but it is worth pondering. It may be that by understanding the likelihood of certain kinds of mistakes we can lessen their likelihood.

Humans do some ridiculous things, but also amazing ones: our machines keep getting better and better. The self-driving car was in the news this week, with Google, which has been road testing its design, announcing plans to commercialize, and with Nevada becoming the first state to legalize one. What does this mean for the future of human driving? The end is near. As a person who enjoys driving, I say this with some sadness, but our AI drivers will be much more reliable and efficient than we are. There will be fewer accidents and better fuel consumption. Human driving will become like horseback riding — a noble but slightly mannered hobby allowed only in special areas.

More on amazing machines in last week’s Economist: a feature headlined The Third Industrial Revolution which gave a valuable perspective on how manufacturing is changing, and those changes are starting to transform societies. Major players include more sophisticated robots, improved software, nanotechnology and 3D printing. The new factories use significantly fewer people. The U.S. has a manufacturing output worth about the same as China’s, but uses only ten percent of the workforce used by China. Amazing, right? 3D printing is making possible product customization to a remarkable degree, and lowering costs. So it sounds like we’ll get more remarkable products cheaper, but have fewer manufacturing jobs. What are all the excess people going to do? Especially once their cars no longer need them?

I have a couple of ideas. Number one: more massage. This is a no brainer. Massage is simply wonderful, and we should all get more and give more. I saw Meredith at Hands on Health this week to get some work on my shoulders. Meredith does therapeutic massage, which is designed not to relax you but to make you healthier, and it can involve some discomfort. There were moments when I was close to my pain redline. To cope, I did deep yoga breaths, and was very proud when she told me that my breathing had been “fantastic.” Afterwards I felt great. Meredith is seven months pregnant now, and doing just fine. She’s helped me a lot, and I’ll miss her while she’s on maternity leave.

Another idea: more art. Art is something humans really like to make and share, and they’ve been doing it for millinea. I worry about our artists and artistic institutions, but they’re not dead yet, and there are still endless possibilities.

I felt particularly optimistic Friday night after the N.C. Opera’s production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore (The Troubadour). They performed the work in a “semi-staged” fashion, with no scenery, and the singers moving in front of the orchestra. Il Trovatore has great music, and the soloists were very fine. Leah Crocetto as Leonora was excellent — an exceptional voice, a sensitive musician, and an expressive actress. But gosh, she’s heavy! I’ll say no more about it, except that it detracted from her effectiveness as an artist. But I just loved her singing, and think she could go far.

I was also impressed with tenor Noah Stewart, who was a powerful and sensitive Manrico. Another cheering point: casting an African-American as a romantic lead for a North Carolina audience has become completely uncontroversial. Liam Bonner was strong as the Count de Luna, and Robynne Redmon was a marvelous Azucena. Richard Ollarsabe as Ferrando had a wonderful bass voice. I was impressed with the sensitivity of the conducting of Timothy Myers. One cavil: the male chorus was raggedy. But this was on the whole a fine production, and made me very happy to be living in Raleigh at this moment in history

A musical dinner party

We had a small dinner party on Saturday night for some old friends. Sally put a lot of thought and work into the food, and I organized the music, including both recordings and some of my own piano playing. I’ve come to think that a musician’s work is inherently social. This isn’t completely obvious, since so much of the work consists of individual, solitary practice. It is possible to enjoy music alone, although even this has a social aspects, since it involves interacting with the musical ideas of others (composers, editors, previous performers).

But a musician’s conception that doesn’t get communicated is not quite complete. It’s like a meal prepared with infinite care which no one tastes. Listeners complete the musical circuit that runs from abstract idea to human emotion. Just as a meal is just an abstraction if it isn’t eaten, a musical conception isn’t really music until someone listens.

So I was happy that our friends let me share with them some of my musical ideas regarding Chopin and Debussy. I played the Minute Waltz, the D flat Nocturne (Op. 27, No. 2), and Clair de Lune, and managed to make some beautiful sonorities. There were some memory lapses, which I was not pleased about, but I recognized them as minor and didn’t get discombobulated.

Having listeners always changes the musician’s mental processing. It can cause greater inspiration and concentration, but it also causes greater stress, and sometimes system failure. The possibility of losing one’s grip and falling is part of the business of climbing, and the possibility of losing one’s place is part of the business of musical performance. It is strange, though, when it happens. The keys suddenly look completely unfamiliar, and the hands are paralyzed with uncertainty. It’s a terrible feeling. But it happens, and the only thing to do is move on. Despite the problems, I was glad I made the effort, and grateful to my listeners for completing the musical circuit.

Sally’s cooking was delicious, and there was plenty of laughter and lively conversation. Tony Judt, the historian and author of Postwar (a great book about the aftermath of WW II) who died of ALS last week, once said that talking was the point of adult experience. It certainly is a great pleasure to talk with kindred spirits about things we care about passionately.

At work last week I took a short class on the subject of “crucial conversations,” which was about how to communicate better when stakes and emotions are high. The class included a little film by a middle schooler who replicated Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment. In the experiment, the subject is told that there is a test of visual perception, and asked to compare the length of one straight line to another. The subject hears several people who are secretly in on the experiment give answers that are clearly wrong, and then, most often, agrees with the clearly wrong answer. The point is, most people go along with the group, even when they think the group is wrong. Those who are willing to trust their own perceptions and buck the group are a minority.

Why does this happen? Is it intellectual insecurity? The fear of being ostracized? It’s possible to imagine a certain evolutionary advantage might accrue to those that maintained stable groups with uniform, though wrong, ideas, so that their band was more effective in hunting, say, the woolly mammoth. But it’s also possible that a huge evolutionary disadvantage from group think that prevented admitting and addressing such global problems as the disastrous war on drugs or global warming from CO2 emissions.

Whether we admit it or not, we all struggle with the pressure to conform to the group, but some of us put up more of a fight than others. Our friends would probably be in the minority of Asch’s test subjects that was willing to go against the grain and voice their true thoughts. It makes for much more lively conversation. Before we knew it, four hours had flown by, and it was time to say good night.