By Ariane David PhD
When I was growing up we lived in the rear of a language school that my parents ran and in which they both taught.
My father’s office was on the left just beyond the foyer of the large old Victorian house that had been a language school for so many years and the home of a wealthy family for so many years before that.
I came home from school one day and passing my father’s office I looked in.
I saw him as usual seated behind is large wooden desk, his back to the window, the cat to one side sleeping on a stack of papers. In front of him were a pair of glasses, his extra pair, and a number of round glass lenses that might have come from a camera.
I watched as he took two lenses put them together and held them up to his eye. He added a third and did the same. Over and over again he repeated this process using different combinations.
Finally, apparently satisfied with one of the combinations he taped the stack of lenses together around the edges with white bandage tape. With more tape, he stuck them to the frame of his extra pair of glasses. He put them on and stood up.
He went to the book case, reached for a book and put it back, reached for another and put it back, too. He went to the kitchen, poured water into a glass and poured it out again. He returned to his desk, reached for a pencil in the middle of his pencil cup and returned it to the very same spot.
He walked around with this odd thing on his face for two days. At the end of that time he announced that he had found the answer. He placed the assembled glasses into his briefcase, put on his eye patch, and left the house.
I had never known my father without glasses, but a couple of years earlier he had started wearing an eye patch that he switched from eye to eye every few hours. I never understood why, although it had something to do with his eyes no longer working together, so he saw two of everything.
But, he assured me, they worked just fine separately if he used them one at a time. His ophthalmologist had told him that there was no solution to the problem except to wear a patch over one eye.
For all the things my father had done in his life, he was first and foremost a thinker. He thought about social justice, the origin of words, the evolution of music, and how the soul and subtleties of light and color could be reproduced on a canvas.
In Europe he had been a documentary film maker, which led to an interest in cameras and lenses. Of late, his interest had turned to finding a way to design a three dimensional movie projector.
It was the latter that inspired him to seek his own solution to his double vision. He had some knowledge of optics and lenses but no knowledge of ophthalmological principles.
Medical science had told him that nothing could be done for his eyes, yet he was not constrained by the boundaries of their knowledge.
He used to say that there was no problem that did not have a solution if one were willing to forget what he knows and change his thinking.
The contrivance on his glasses was his answer to seeing double. From the taped-together stack of lenses the optician was able to derive an optical formula and grind a single lens for each eye. My father never wore a patch after that, only thick glasses.
Several years later, he was asked to speak at an ophthalmological conference where he explained to the assembled physicians what had inspired him to seek a solution to a problem they believed had no such solution.
The way the brain handles knowledge is a double-edged sword. On one hand knowledge is the greatest tool we have for understanding the world in which we live.
The knowledge we possess makes up the raw material for everything we think; it’s an essential component of all our ideas, our decisions, our problem solving and our creativity.
When it is allowed to be fluid and ever evolving knowledge is exciting and inspiring, and leaves us craving more.
Yet, at some point, knowledge can do just the opposite. It can become the very thing that holds us back.
As we grow complacent and comfortable in our knowledge it becomes stale and our brains grow lazy.
When our brains say to us “I know! There’s no need to look further”, we stop questioning and become willing submissives to the tyranny of knowledge.
November 19, 1941
On Thursday, November 19, 1941 the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney encountered the German armed merchant raider HSK Kormoran west of Shark Bay, Western Australia.
A fire fight ensued, the Sydney sank with all hands following the battle. The German ship was irreparably damaged and later scuttled, the majority of its crew surviving.
The loss of the Sydney was particularly tragic because all 645 hands of the Sydney were lost, the single greatest maritime loss of life ever for the Australian navy.
Six days later, 317 out of the 399 man Kormoran crew were located in seven boats and rafts scattered in the ocean northwest of Carnarvon, Australia. All that was found of the Sydney was an inflatable life raft, empty. The only witnesses to the sinking of the boats were the rescued German seamen.
In Australia skepticism regarding their truthfulness ran high: they were, after all, the enemy. Over the course of months and years that followed the Germans were repeatedly interviewed by the Royal Australian Navy in an effort to gain clues that would lead to the sunken Sydney.
But the coordinates and accounts varied wildly so that even those that seemed credible didn’t make sense.
The one thing that the Germans did agree upon was that at last sighting, the Sydney was steaming away under her own power engulfed in flames and was eventually lost from sight.
For the next almost sixty years attempts were made to locate the boats. The Finding Sydney Foundation, a non-profit established specifically to locate them, brought in oceanographers and salvage experts, but all their efforts proved fruitless.
Then in 1994 two cognitive psychologists, Kim Kirsner from the University of Western Australia and John Dunn from the University of Adelaide became interested in the problem from a completely different perspective: could they come up with the location of the Sydney using only what they knew about cognitive science.
Unlike the oceanographers and naval experts before them, they undertook a strategy that charted not ocean currents but human memory. From the transcripts of interviews of seventy of the rescued German seamen, they plotted the stories on a kind of graph.
They noticed that the resulting pattern bore a striking resemblance to a graph they had seen in the work of British psychologist Frederick Bartlett.
In the 1930s Bartlett studied the migration of memory, i.e., how memories tend to drift over time, changing in somewhat predictable ways.
In what is probably Bartlett’s most famous experiment, he asked a number of subjects, all English college students, to read an original native American folk tale entitled The War of the Ghosts.
The subjects were asked to recount the story fifteen minutes later and then at intervals after that up to several years. As participants recalled the story over and over again it became more concise and contemporary.
Bartlett observed that the transformations in the recollection of the tale were not conscious but rather unwitting alterations that that allowed the participants to make sense of the story by fitting them to established schemas. The final versions of the story had very little to do with the original.
Memory, Bartlett found, was the active act of constructing past events anew: it was ever changing, even while being somewhat predictable.
Professor Kim Kirsner and Professor John Dunn, both cognitive scientists, applied their knowledge of human memory and language to sift through accounts provided by the survivors of the HSK Kormoran to reconstruct the position of the wrecks.
It was this predictability that Kirsner and Dunn used to decipher the accounts of the German seamen.
This formed the basis of the UWA scientists’ analysis through cognitive reconstruction, and ultimately that led to the development of a set of coordinates for the location of the sunken boats. Never expecting to have their predictions validated, Kirsner and Dunn turned over the coordinates to the Finding Sydney Foundation.
The wreck of HMAS Sydney (II) was found on Sunday March 16th, 2008, west of Steep Point off the western coast of Australia. The location was 2.7 nautical miles from Kirsner’s and Dunn’s coordinates in a planned search area of more than 6,000 square kilometers, sixty six and one half years after her disappearance.
What Bartlett, and Kirsner and Dunn proved is that memory is a shape shifter, somewhat dependable, yet altering it’s form every time it’s called up. “I remember” simply means, “these are the memories I’m constructing at this moment.” They may or may not be accurate and we have no way of knowing.