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Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Memories are made of…the Weapon Focus Effect

During research for some writing I’ve become intrigued by the delicate interplay between emotion and memory and, moreover, how this manifests itself in our relationship with the natural world. Perhaps quite obviously, scores of cognitive psychologists have experimented with the effects of emotion on our memory and find that highly charged emotional reactions to experiences drive deeper markers into our memory than most ‘normal’ experiences.

The experiences we have, running on the cross-cut axes of whether they’re soothing or exciting, positive or negative, contain all manner of cues or stimuli that combine to help us remember something; whether that’s a simple connection between memory and birdsong or memory and love or more complex correlations, these are the things that web together to define what our memories look like.

But in 1959 one J A Easterbrook, in his cue utilisation theory, suggested that the more emotionally aroused we become, the fewer of these cues will hit home; only the principal, most stimulating elements of the experience will be encoded in our memory, while the peripheral details will become fuzzy and only lightly adhere. This was further defined by something termed the Weapon Focus Effect, where witnesses to violent crime can tell you what colour the knife was but cannot say whether the perpetrator was wearing a white tuxedo or a balaclava.

In recent times I’ve been unsure what my most potent memories of encounters with wildlife are made up of. I have publicly entertained theories that every cue and element of the experince has somehow been used and I’m still not convinced that it isn’t. But in all my many thousands hours spent in the natural world, feeling bucolic and sensitive but where nothing out of the ordinary happens then I can, with certainty, tell you that I was feeling relaxed. But couldn’t give you a single reason why I know that. This is because I don’t remember it.

Conversely, the times I have been visually bludgeoned by rampaging superpods of oceanic dolphins or incised with surgical precision by the vision of a stooping peregrine have hammered markers into my memory that are almost immovable. The weapon is permanently fixed in my mind. In some cases these are less markers than they are obscenely large, flashing neon signs. What’s more, the effect of the strength of these memories on my ability to recall them means I can escape to this Las Vegas strip of memory whenever I chose to debauch myself in all the finest sights and sounds of the planet has to offer.

But that leaves me with one more question: What might the lasting effect on us and the planet be if we were to arrive at a point where every encounter with the wild comes to us loud and clear regardless of its distance in time?

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