How our memories can play tricks on us – an interesting episode
I am sure we all talk about fading memories – especially as you grow old like me. Here is the thing though – even when our memory is not fading, we cannot unequivocally trust your memory.
Meeting a new friend
“Matt wanted me to come and meet you”, said the young lady as I was passing by a bunch of empty cubes in our PE firm’s office in San Francisco. I had grabbed my lunch between meetings and was walking towards where I had parked for the day to finish eating.
Not knowing the context, I replied “Sure. Let me finish my lunch and I will get you in 20 minutes”.
Well, lunch did not take that long. I figured I would check her Linkedin profile and get to know her background – so I would be a little prepared during the introductions. But there was one catch. I did not know her name!! Of course, going back and asking her “What is your name?” would have been silly.
So, I went around the office from the other side and tried to locate Matt. Unfortunately, his door was closed and he was in a meeting. I strolled further and came across my birthday-buddy Raj. “Hey Raj, you know that young lady sitting on the other side right in the middle by the corridor?”. Raj tried his best to remember but could not.
Saw Leeraz was nearby.
“You know that lady sitting on the other side by the corridor in the middle section?”
“Ummm… blonde, right?”
“No. Black, flowing hair”. I could not remember her face – I had seen her but for a few seconds – but I remembered the black flowing hair – almost glistening like many Asian ladies have. In fact, I could close my eyes and see the hair. Not much of the face though.
“I do not think I know her then”.
Fortunately, Matt opened the door at that moment and stepped out.
“Matt. Did you send a lady to come and meet me?”
“Yes. Her name is Paige. She has joined our sourcing team. You will enjoy talking to her. She can learn form Riverside too.”
“Ok. What is her full name?”
“Cool. I will meet her.”
Went straight back to my room – this time went by Paige (I had nothing to fear – I knew her name now 🙂 ) and waved – “I will see you soon”.
Checked her background in Linkedin. Saw the picture I have attached here.
“Ah! she had dyed her hair blonde when she took this picture”, I mused to myself.
Fully equipped with her background info – and some threads of potential intersection points, I went to call her in.
I went over to her desk. And stood there staring at her. There was Paige Dolby – right in front of me – blonde, as blonde could be. Even then, I could distinctly recollect the black shining hair picture in my mind.
After a couple of awkward seconds, I told her “You will not believe this…..” and narrated the story.
This has happened before
This has happened to me many times. Especially as the daughters were growing up.
“So, Nikita – which friend of yours has a parent working in our company?”, I would ask after a kids’ party at our home.
“Which one was Bethany”
“The red haired one”
Arrrgh!!! That never narrowed down for me.
Why does this happen to me?
You see, growing up in India, I was used to only one color of hair – kind of like what Ford said – black. Usually jet, shiny black. The only other color was what we call grey hair (actually white in color). And then, there was no hair. But there was no other color.
Hair color was never a differentiating characteristic. Length of hair, style of hair, skin color, nose length, eye width – all that yes. But never hair color.
After coming to the USA, I got to see other kinds of hair colors. But they never registered much at all when it was not in front of my eye.
My eyes “see” it – meaning the brain processes alright but does not register it or push it to the hippocampus for short term memory. Let alone long term in the cortex.
And this is how all brains work. Our memory does not remember the whole event or scene. But when the brain tries to recall it, instead of recognize the gaps, it just fills in the gaps!! Much like you never see a hole (“blindspot”) as you look out corresponding to where your optical nerve meets the retina. That is because the brain just fills the hole up with approximate data from the immediate surroundings.
When I saw Paige, I would have surely seen her hair. But the brain just did not mark it as an interesting data point. It was biased to believe all hair color is black. And moment she was not in front of me, my brain promptly filled it up with black hair when I needed to recollect.
Remember, I saw her Linkedin picture. But my brain did not even doubt itself. It convinced itself that she had dyed her hair!!
The dissonance of seeing her actual hair color and then close my eyes and see the black hair distinctly was palpable.
It can have serious ramifications
Later that evening, over some cocktails at the Pier, I was narrating the story to Celeste, Jim and Leeraz. I was still marveling at how memories can play tricks on you. Celeste asked a very interesting question – “So, how much can we really trust eye witnesses?”
The import of the question hit me immediately. In a court of law, I would absolutely say under oath that the lady I saw had black hair.
That is the power of unconscious bias!!! And how unreliable memory can be!!!