A recent 60 Minutes episode profiled people who have extraordinary memories. The individuals memory was so detailed that they were able to recall exactly where they were and the details of what they did on any given day, even decades earlier.
In the episode, the anchor, Leslie Stahl, interviewed a group of several people with extraordinary memories. Below is an excerpt of some of the dialogue:
Leslie Stahl: Is it as if you are living it [the memory] again as opposed to for me kind of a two dimensional memory?
Extraordinary Memory 1: For me it is, you say the date and I am there, as though it happened moments ago rather than 28 years ago.
Leslie Stahl: And that is both emotionally, and smelling and touching…?
Extraordinary Memory 2: It’s like time travel.
Extraordinary Memory 3: You can almost feel the clothes you were wearing
Leslie Stahl: Do you think it’s sad that the rest of us lose the memory of our own lives? Do you feel sorry for us?
Extraordinary Memory 1: I do. I really do.
Leslie Stahl: What would you say if I told you that I experience memory in two dimensions and do not relive the experience in the same way you do?
Extraordinary Memory 1: I would say I totally and completely do not relate to that.
The responses of the Extraordinary Memory group are instructive in telling us how they are able to do what they do. Their memory recall process is not cognitive like it is for you and I, it is experiential—they experience the memory as though they are there in the moment, reliving it:
You can almost feel the clothes you were wearing.
Later in the program, several neurology experts theorized about how extraordinary memory-ers were able to do what they do. The question of how they do what they do could be a series of blog posts unto itself, but it’s not what I want to focus on here.
An Extreme Example of Not Relating
Instead, I want to focus on the ‘not relating’ part.
When Leslie asked the extraordinary memory-er what she would say if she told her she experiences memory in two dimensions–that her memory experience is cognitive and not experiential–the extraordinary memory-ers response was absolute and ironclad:
I would say I totally and completely do not relate to that.
If the language the answerer used is not strong enough to grok the degree to which the EM does not relate to Leslies experience of memory, watch the video and see the way she shakes her head, the certainty in the way she explains to you that you might as well be telling her that you’ve just landed from Mars and have a tree growing from the center of your forehead because she just doesn’t get your experience.
This example suits the point I want to make because it’s an extreme example of one individual not relating to another. It is immediately understandable that an individual who experiences memory as though they are re-experiencing the event to such a degree that they “feel the clothes you were wearing” does not relate to an individual for whom memory is a static, emotionless, cognitive experience.
More on this in a bit.
Einstein’s Physics Explains Human Relations
In our search for understanding of how humans relate to each other, there are many disciplines, from biology, chemistry and psychology we could examine.
Physics might not be the first thing we would think of, but as it turns out it has a lot to teach us. I don’t profess to understand the math or physics nuances of Einstein’s theory of relativity. But the bit that I do understand states that people see light waves (in other words, experience the universe) differently based on their point of view. That is to say that the position you are in, the angle that you are facing the waves of light determine how you experience that light, not the properties of the light itself.
From the world of biology we know that as light enters the eye, it bends based on the unique curvature of the individual’s eye lens so that each individual really does ‘see’ in a slightly (sometimes not so slightly) different way.
Intentional or not, Einstein’s theory of relativity that proved that human perception differs based on the perspective of the individual explained human relations via a blackboard of math calculations.
Why It Matters
When we come to the realization that we really do experience the world in a very different way from one another—that it is imminently provable from physics and biology that we’re neither right nor wrong, we are different–it raises a series of questions about what to do with that information.
One direction we could take, is that there is an argument to be made, for many varied reasons I won’t go into here, that it is in my and your best interest that I develop an understanding of what your experience and perspective is —to really grow to understand what your Einsteinian perspective is, to develop a growing awareness of how the light bends as it enters your eyes. It is hard, and it is a lifelong process but it is possible to make progress, and there are many strong reasons for spending focused time and effort on doing so.
A Step Before
But, there is a step that both precedes it and is imminently more achievable.
The truth is we don’t really need Einsteinein physics or a careful study of the structure of the human eye, or even extreme examples of how those with extraordinary memory do or do not relate to those without.
The truth is, we all *know* it to be true. We know that you and I Iook physically different, our taste buds are different, we sound different when we speak or sing, we have different physical skills—we just inherently know that we, as humans, experience the world in different—sometimes completely different–ways.
We *know* it, we just forget it when it comes to actually interacting with the rest of the human race.
We say things like:
That wasn’t funny
I didn’t find that funny
Or we catch ourselves thinking things like:
How could he/she possibly do that????
What the extraordinary memory example teaches us is that the gap between the extraordinary memory and non-extraordinary memory individuals is not actually an extreme example. The example is a way for us to clearly see how two people are so different that they don’t relate to each other, but as we have proven with Einstein’s theories and with analysis of the human eye, it actually more accurately reflects the norm—that you and I have uniquely different perspectives and neither of us is actually ‘right’.
What Do We Do with This Knowledge?
So what do we *do* with the knowledge that nothing is absolute—the absolute properties of light are immaterial to how our eye sees it—that you and I are different and relate to things differently? Some readers may be expecting me to now emotionally conclude “let’s do more holding of hands and singing of ‘We are the world!!’ Although the world could probably use more of that, my conclusion is going to be a logical one rather than an emotional one.
If you agree with the analysis up to this point, that biology, psychology, even physics are in complete alignment that you and I experience the world in fundamentally different ways, then by extension, you must also agree that the way that we approach each other must reflect that reality if it is to align with the way things actually work.
That means catching and correcting ourselves when we find ourselves making absolute statements like “That wasn’t funny”, and correct it to “I didn’t find that funny”. It means finding ways to integrate into our bones that things are not absolute, rather they are the way that the curve of our eye happens to be bending the light which might not be the same way that the light is bent as it traverses your eye curve.
When we really think about it further, we realize that if we made a list of things that stretched from here to infinity that we could focus on tuning in our selves, there would be many worthwhile options that we could move to the top of the list.
But you could make the argument that this concept—integrating the knowledge that how I see things is neither right nor wrong, it is a function of my perspective and your perspective might be different should be at the top of the list.
The truth is we all walk around, to varying degrees, certain that our perspective is not *just* our perspective, it is reality, it is ironclad, it is the way it is rather than it is the way the light bends as it passes through our eye curve. This is a particularly tricky thing because we see through our eyes, we hear through our ears, we breathe through our lungs. The beginning of the solution is to catch ourselves in a thought pattern that has us believing that our view is anything more than our view.
This is not an emotional argument. It is *not* a 1,500 work missive encouraging you to ‘embrace your neighbor’. Rather, it is an observation of how things work, how humans are constructed, how the physics and the biology tells us the systems actually work and, with our newfound understanding of how the system operates in hand, the conclusions we must come to about changes in our mindset and behaviors that must follow these conclusions.
Making progress on this concept has far reaching power. It has the power to affect the workplace—the person who works for me has a different working style from me and needs a different setup and environment than me to thrive. Personal relationships change when approached with a mindset of ‘he/she is different from me even if I don’t understand or relate to his/her point of view’, it is enough to recognize that my view is not an absolute, it is just my view.
Whatever methods we choose that work for us to make progress on seeing the world as our perspective rather than absolute, we would be well served to bring our mindset in line with how human systems actually operate.
Subscribe via email
- About the Author
Nathan Safran is a former Analyst at Forrester Research where he covered the Digital Home. While at Forrester, Nathan authored research studies on trends, attitudes and behaviors of consumers toward technology adoption and use.
Nathan has been quoted as a subject matter expert in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Fortune magazine. Currently, Nathan heads the Research Department at Conductor, Inc an SEO Technology Platform firm.
Nathan writes at exceljockey.com about the intersection of Business, Technology and Psychology. See the About page for more info. Follow Nathan on Twitter: @Nathan_Safran