Monday, May 18, 2015

Recognition Versus Recall

Not having done an ounce of research on this topic, I really shouldn’t be writing about it.  But I will anyway simply because it interest me; yet not enough to do any research on it.  Go figure!

Most people come to realize at some point that their recognition is and always has been better than their recall.  Okay, I will exclude Marilu Henner and her ilk (who are perfect examples of why you chop off the extremes when doing statistics) from this “given.”  But think about it.  If someone asked you to name off the books in your book cabinet in the other room, or the old CD’s that you have in that old box under your bed, if actually tested, you might get fifteen percent of them right?  Maybe twenty?  Yet, if someone took all of your books out of your cabinet, or all of your CD’s out of that box, and mixed them up with a bunch of others, you would undoubtedly be able to recognize those, which were yours, and those that you had never seen before.

I suppose that’s why police sketch artists have more work to do after crimes than the officer who pulls a few photos of possible suspects.  It’s hard to remember and describe what you saw, but it’s easier to recognize it as separate from others if it’s plopped down in front of you.  “Yeah, I own this old CD of Joe Jackson’s, “Night And Day,” or, “Yes, that was the excessively ugly and unkempt man who held up the liquor store while I was searching for my pint of chocolate Haagen Dazs®.” 

But why is this?  Ahh, now we get to the completely non-reputable and assumption-jumping mind of Fred Herrman.  I love coming up with theories, but am just too lazy to really find out if there is even a grain of truth to them. 

This is what I think, anyway.

I want you to go back using your species memory.  I try to use mine sometimes.  I strain my brain to remember, “Was my DNA afraid when that big meteor hit the Yucatan?”  “How did I survive all of those ice ages?”  And, “What did it feel like to first climb out of the oceans onto land and breath air?”  I was probably a chinchilla, a trilobite, and a platypus respectively during those epochs.  And really, it’s all still pretty fuzzy to me, but I do remember periods of chaos and lots of waiting around for something to happen.  This planet has been here for a very long time. 

But I’m not asking you to remember that far back.  Just to when we were all hunters and gatherers on any one of the continents after Pangaea had split up and we all started spreading out like seven-year old's just let into the gates of Disneyland.  What did we all have to do?  Well, the answer is, we had to hunt and gather, and not be killed.  It was pretty simple back then.  No Wi-Fi dropouts.  No dummy engine lights illuminated on your dashboard with absolutely no hint of what’s the matter.  And, no getting sick and tired of “K-A-R-S Kars-for-Kids” commercials playing incessantly on the radio.  As hunters and gatherers, we just wandered around each day, looking for food, and we hoped to make it back to the campfire with the least amount of unpleasant incident possible. 

And so, what were the tools of our trade?  What seemed to put us all a bit higher than expected on the food pyramid were our hands and our minds.  We were able to think of making tools, such as crude hammers, spears, fire, and eventually, the wheel.  Gary Larson drew prolifically on the many mishaps of early caveman wheel engineering.

But among all of this, the most important thing was our brain.  Our mind was able to conceive of all of these things.  And it also developed in an efficient way as to know what it needed to know in order to survive, and not get all tangled up with unnecessary facts and obsolete data (such as that which resides cobwebbed in my brain).  One of these abilities that developed was recognition.  When a few hunters went out to the areas they had discovered had good prey, and perhaps these areas were not so close by to home, they inevitably needed a way to be able to make the trek there and back each time, ensuring both food and their safe arrival home.  And specifically, on their way there, they would have to make many turns and forks, climb hillsides, and traverse rivers to get what they needed. 

At each of these points where decisions had to be made, they needed the ability of recognition.  They didn’t need the entire map of the way there and back in their head, meaning, they didn’t need recall.  They just needed to recognize which way to go at each juncture.  “Do we turn left or right at the leaning tree?  Oh yes, we turn right.  Going left will eventually lead us into a vast desert”  And, “How far down the river to we need to walk before we cross?  Oh yes, see that big rock that looks like a boar with an oversized ass? We should cross right there because it’s very shallow.  One time in not so recent history, Thorg decided he’d cross sooner back there, and as soon as he got out about, yeah far, old Thorg took a long and spontaneous ride down the river and was never seen again.”  And, “Now that we’re hear at the rocky hills, which way do we go around them?  Oh, yes, we go right again.  There is a nasty lion’s lair on the left side of the hills.  Just ask Lefty; he made that mistake only once, though he has to pivot his body in order to point to it now.” 

And, when it came to food, a Wikipedic recall of every single plant and nut that humans have ever encountered was not necessary either.  We just needed to know when there was a problem in front of us.  “Hey, Krog, look at this bush.  It has these delicious looking red berries, and they have really pretty decorative black stripes down their sides.”  “Did you say, ‘black stripes?’ No, Chad (that was a real name back then by the way), don’t eat those.  Don’t you remember how sick your sister got after eating them a year ago?  Did you enjoy cleaning up the cave after hear hourly mishaps?” 

And I have to think that it was very helpful with faces as well since we are so good as humans at recognizing faces we’ve met before.  As the DNA soup was percolating even back then, there was no shortage of misfits and people more than slightly off their rockers, for there were a lot of unpredictable stressed back then in that simple lifestyle.  Perhaps there were even serial caveman killers.  All that one would have needed was one bad experience with one of those crazy Neandopaths, and we knew that for our survival and well-being we needed to stay away from them.  Yet, we didn’t have to remember every nut-case’s face; only recognize him or her when they were in front of us so that we could run like hell. 

In closing this most unscientific of musings, I will state my belief that, until very recently on the evolutionary clock when we suddenly valued permanent knowledge of everything as if we should all had random access memories, we only needed a sufficient amount of recall ability, such as caveman anniversaries (Oh God could a cave-woman get soar about a missed Paleolithic anniversary…you wouldn’t want to witness her mastery of thick clubbing logs), which comprised a far smaller proportion of our brain power than was needed for our recognition abilities.  For it was recognition that really saved our asses from floating down a river, or getting fatal food poisoning, or walking into a carnivores’ den.

So, next time you’re in a meeting at work, and a supervisor asks you to name of a few items or event dates that he or she thinks you should know, it is perfectly acceptable and reasonable form to reply, “I have absolutely no recollection.  Show me a list of them, and I’ll pick out which ones I recognize.”