JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 12
Can We See More or Less than We Used To Be Able To See?
An early study of attention and perception (or “How Many Items Can it Embrace at Once?”) popped out at me while muscling my way through another year of Nature magazine for 1871. The article was by W. Stanley Jevons ("The Power of Numerical Discrimination," 1871) who contributes an interesting and very early experimental bit on the success of the brain to correctly formulate an accurate memory when in a flash shown a number of items. (That is to say, when shown a certain group of X-number of items instantaneously and then removed, how often will the mind be able to remember the correct number upon recall--and without committing them to memory per se or counting them?) In this fascinating study Jevons records not only right/wrong answers but how "close" the remembered fit is to the original number, and in effect is a pioneering scientific effort towards understanding our abilities and limits in information processing.
Its important to distinguish Jevons’ experimental work on apprehension from earlier (and much earlier) philosophical and semi-scientific work on memory formation and retention. This of course goes back as far or as deep as you want to go—taking a stab at random we’ll use Simonides who while trying to organize poetry and other data in his head came upon the idea of using Mnemonics and using associative processes in art and poetry to establish his own history of memory. (I should point out that one of the early-modern experimenters in the formation of memory was Giordano Bruno who wound up being tortured and burnt at the stake for other offense against The God while trying to formulate a truthful approach to science; evidently the memories that would be threatened by his scientific approach proved to be too much for the righteous in power, and he was removed before he could threaten corrective memory any further.)
It is interesting that many of the crimes of science punished by the Catholic Church during this period (1450-1650) were as much crimes against memory than they were crimes against the future—changing and challenging collective memory often proved fatal.
Getting back to Jevons—who was a very smart guy and who applied himself to a number of fields, not the least of which was constructing a logic machine: his experiment proved to be a springboard for a host of others, some of which didn’t do Jevons justice, misreporting his finding, misrepresenting the stuffy, and so forth. Perhaps the greatest of these was the greatest of the efforts based on his—Raymond Cattell —who for some reason stated in his very influential textbook of 1907 that humans can remember around 7 things (without counting) when the objects are flashed before their eyes. And for a hundred years this figure stuck, even though the Jevons report issued a more complex summation, and saying, anyway, that the number was around 10.
And what bothered me a bit with the Jevons experiment is what people remembered when shown the objects (beans)—would his results have varied if subjects were asked how many were shiny or odd-colored or deformed or whatever rather than just a simple number, the results could’ve been more interesting. (I don’t doubt that these issues have been taken up in the 20th century but haven’t looked). Sometimes people are just looking in the wrong places—for example operant psychology labs tested rats via visual stimuli until it was discovered that rats were olfactory geniuses and that humans were using them wrong all along.
It would be interesting to know what the history is of human capacity for image formation. Considering the growth of distractions and the enormous amount of true and trash stimuli—visual bombardment from television, outdoor advertisements, the sheer amount of growth of human construction and interaction—have humans enhanced this spatial/memory information processing capacity? Consider the growth of (just) eye movements over the last few hundred years, with the visual sense being subjected (for all classes of people) to enormously and fractally-expanded print sources, television, digital communication and so on—has this expanded this neural capacity? Has "space invaders" aided bean counting?
I don’t know, though I do wonder (literally) what the effect exponentially-growing mass input of (mostly junk) data might be doing to our noggins. Maybe the effects lean more towards dissolving privacy and reflective time—when does a person think if interruptive stuff is coming into your head at all points of the day, with the brain trying to interpret incomplete and ambiguous strings of sensory inputs?
Seems scary to me. Maybe memory is affected, maybe it makes it go away, shriveled because recollection is being eliminated. Or demented like the wonderful Yossarian (his first name is John, btw) from Joe Heller’s beautiful Catch-22 who develops for himself a condition in which he remembers everything twice (whatever that means).
It would be interesting to see a war of societies in which the sides were a culture that remember nothing versus a culture that remembered everything. The unspeakably lovely Jorge Borges wrote something touching on this in "Fumes the Memorist," in which the humble narrator is capable of forgetting nothing, being able to recall explicitly everything within eyesight, perfectly—the problem is though that it takes a day to remember the events of another day. What would happen in such a culture where everyone forgot nothing?
And I’ve just been dealing here with visual memory, really—and as Proust makes plainly clear (and Borges and other prove), vision isn’t everything.