The Memory Experiment

First, I had to pull on the skull cap, which had slits in it where the all electrodes would thread it to attach to my head... except for the four electrodes that were affixed to the skin around my eyes instead. Next, the woman suiting me up used a cotton-tipped swab to scrub my scalp clean with a sandy paste mixture, which helped sure the electrodes stayed in contact with my skin. She attached all the sensors and told me to not scratch my face or make any sudden moves for the next 90 minutes or so. Finally, she seated me alone in a dim room. I was wired up, staring at a blank wall in one of the neurology department buildings at University College London, earning a whopping £5 per hour.

I was about to participate in a scientific experiment, although I didn't know at the time what was being tested. I had no idea what the experiment would entail, nor what was being studied, nor what I might have to do. I fit the basic criteria to participate, and that's about all I knew. As long as I could follow directions for the next hour and a half, and come back for a second visit about a week later, I was in.

Being a Scientific Subject
I found the study the way I found all the others: by combing the halls of various departments at UCL looking for cork boards with plain paper ads seeking subjects for studies that would pay me a little walking-around money. One half-hour study I did paid about £3 for a half hour's worth of "work," which in that case consisted of showing up to the psychology department, listening to a bearded young man with tattered jeans and a northern English accent pretend to hypnotize me, then get quizzed about everyday things and how I was feeling.

My friend Nick followed my lead and started doing experiments, too. He signed on for one particular experiment that paid more then ten times what I was making, but he had to be injected with some fluorescent colored fluid and given an MRI, while listening to a recording of words and responding after each one if it was "alive" or "not alive." I thought that sounded like the best gig yet (the study only wanted males, so I couldn't do it), but Nick said it was creepy and kind of hard because the words started out as "rock" and "dog," but grew more complicated: "language" (alive?), "love," "pflurregarin" or some gibberish (not alive?). Plus the IV wasn't so comfortable, he said. He also got a color printout image of his own brain scan when he was done. "I kind of want to put this onto a t-shirt," he said, "with an arrow pointing to that big black area that I can only assume is LSD damage."

Suited Up
The first day of this study, I arrived at the neurology department across town in a London neighborhood that I didn't know well. I found the address, went inside, and was minimally briefed on the experiment without being told any detail of what the researchers wanted to know. Could I commit to returning once or twice more if needed? Sure. And I knew this visit might last up to two hours, all told? Yes. Was I comfortable wearing a skull cap? Sure, I guess. And was I right-handed? You betchya.

No doubt I signed a release form of some kind. Then the researcher's assistant prepped my head.

When I was suited up and placed in the study room, one of the researchers entered to give me instructions. "You're going to see a number of objects. Each one will be set in an environment, a backdrop, but the object will be highlighted so you'll know what to focus on.

"I want you to try and make up a story about the object and its surroundings to help you remember it. Okay? Let's try one out loud."

He flipped off the lights, and a projection appeared on the wall. I'm not sure in hindsight what the example object and environment was, but it could have been a winter jacket in a tropical forest.

"Try and remember that object," he said, "and make up a story about why it's there."

I sat silent.

"Okay, tell it to me."

"A girl was walking thought the forest and she dropped her coat."

"Well..." He hesitated. "That's good, but see if you can make it more creative, more memorable."

Let me say here that in hindsight, it's clear the researcher wasn't able to put himself in my shoes. His instructions were vague. I didn't know what he wanted, but he didn't know that I didn't know what he wanted. He couldn't see it. But I might have figured out what he wanted if I had known anything at all about the study. Because I didn't know what I was supposed to accomplish as an end result in the study, I didn't know what kind of "creative story" he wanted me to make up. Is that what he and his colleagues were testing? My creativity? Would I be quizzed about that at the end of the experiment? Was the purpose of the experiment to track my eye movements and brain activity while thinking creatively? Or while looking at unfamiliar images? Maybe they would test my reflexes after I had been sitting still for one hour, and this was just part of a distraction technique. I had no clue.

All his instructions and guidance assumed I knew something that I clearly did not. If I had known that I was about to gaze on nearly two hundred of these images, and then later be asked to identify objects that I had seen among many more that I hadn't, I might have realized that he wanted me to come up with a method for helping me to remember the objects under that future pressure.

So I tried again. "Okay, the jacket came from a man who jumped out of a plane, and while he was parachuting down, his jacket snagged on the trees and got left behind in the jungle." I said.

"Good," he said. "Better. I want you to do that with each of the images you see, but try to do it faster. Try to only take a second or two."

I don't remember if I had control over the speed at which the images were shown or if the projector advanced automatically, but I remember feeling like the experiment was taking a lot out of me. When it started, I had no idea if I was going to see five images or dozens or hundreds. I didn't know if this was only one phase of a multi-part study, or if this was the whole thing. Without any expectations, I couldn't effectively prepare myself for the task or pace myself accordingly.

Oh... It's a Mailbox!
The only image I definitely remember, now 13 years later, was a mailbox. The background image escapes me, but remember the mailbox because I couldn't figure out what it was when I first saw it. I thought, "How am I supposed to make up a story about this object if I don't know what it is?" So I pretended it was a little space capsule or something.

The reason I couldn't t identify the mailbox is because it was a red British post box, and I had only been in the country for a few weeks. Simple as that. It was an object I didn't recognize when it was plopped in the context of a scenic cliff, or whatever it was.

Finally, after two hundred or so images, I reached my last one. My dry eyes sagged in their sockets. My brain felt like someone had just blind-sided it. And the skull cap and all the electrodes on my face and head were starting to itch.

The researcher returned. "Okay. Now you're going to see pictures of objects again, and I'm going to give you two buttons to hold" (the buttons looked like buzzers that contestants on game shows hold) "and when an object comes on screen that you've seen before, press the right button. If you have not seen the object before, press the left button. Got it?"


The pictures started and the first were easy. They were also set on backdrop landscapes, some of which I had seen before and some of which I hadn't. Some of the background were paired up with the same images, and some were new.

We began. I had definitely seen that jacket before.

It was the first image we practiced. And the duck (I don't really remember each object, but I'm making them up here to illustrate the point). Yes, the duck was also one of the very first images I saw, and I remember the story I made up for it. But, shit! I hit the left buzzer instead of the right one accidentally. Well, I thought, I have to keep going. Then some more images appeared that I definitely remembered seeing, and yet I hit the left button again. Shit.

The researcher spoke up from nearby. It was the first time I realized he had been watching me the while time. "Remember, right button if you have seen it, left if you have not."

"Sorry!" I shouted back without being able to see him. The electrodes on my head prevented me from turning my head toward him.

I continued, and still occasionally hit the wrong button.

Then the post box appeared, and I had my one true moment of recognition. "Oh! It's a mailbox," I said to myself. U.K. post boxes look like little red cylindrical towers. U.S. post boxes are dark blue, kind of squat looking, and are cubic on the lower half with a big round hump on top.

Memorable Things
It amazes me that 13 years later, I remember the mailbox, and the electrodes, and how the study worked more or less, and participating in it at all. In my previous blog post, I mentioned that I recently read Joshua Foer's Moonwalking With Einstein, which discusses a lot if these same ideas. How is it that we English speakers have memorized 26 letters of the alphabet and thousands upon thousands of ways to combine them into words, but so few of us remember what's in our refrigerators day to day? Quantitatively speaking, there's way less stuff in the fridge than in the language, and yet language and literacy seems to become hardwired into our brains from a very early age. (The word "hardwired" comes up in some linguistic theory I've read. Another is "blueprint," in that all normal functioning people have a blueprint in their brains that's ready to accept a language, or two or three, before the age of about seven or eight or nine years.)

Foer tells us that among memory champions, that is, people who actively work to improve their memories and compete in memory sport by memorizing shuffled decks of cards or long lists of random binary numbers, have a few tricks for taking unmemorable things and making them memorable by associating them with things we know well, like the layout of one's childhood home, or a whacky story (or both).

Reading the book made me think about the study from 2000, and I started searching academic journals for a paper that might have been printed about it. I found one about recognition memory, and wrote to the authors to try and confirm whether I was included in the study (they answered that the records no longer existed, and that the data was anonymized anyway), but reading about it, I am almost certain I found the right one.

I'd like to know if I had been one of the subjects whose data was excluded for poor performance, given that I hit the wrong buzzer knowingly several times, but given that the data was anonymized, I never would have known even if I followed up with the researchers many years ago.

It would have been interesting to attempt the experiment after having read Foer's book and learning some tricks for how to make my memory stronger.