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The Wooliness of Memory

by Daniel Loxton, Apr 13 2010
Jolene leading sheep

Jolene leading 1500 sheep.

A very old friend of mine came into town over the Easter weekend. I went to elementary school with Jolene, and much later she was an apprentice shepherd on my crew. After a few seasons she became a Project Manager with a crew and flock of her own. My wife was a shepherd on Joe’s crew, as was our current upstairs neighbor Julie.

We only see Joe once a year or so now, so it’s always a bit of an occasion. We cracked a few beers that evening and it soon became a sheep camp reunion. And, that brought us to a small moment of skeptical reflection.

I’m going to ramble through sheep camp on my way there, though. You can skip to the end if you’re impatient.

Like other such small groups united by a hard-to-describe common experience, shepherds love to get together and tell old war stories. “Remember the time you charged those grizzly bears?” “Remember when whatsername took three hours to fail to make fire?” You know how it goes. Sheep herding was an odd sort of life: lonely yet close; boring yet stressful; peaceful yet dangerous. It sounds sort of dreamy and pastoral (and it could feel that way occasionally) but herding 1500 sheep on foot is hard work.

Most of all, it was exhausting. We worked seasons of about 90 days, plus six weeks of pre-season and a couple weeks of post-season. Work days ran 16 hours. (Easy to do, in one sense, up there along the Alaska Panhandle: in June, it didn’t really get dark till midnight.) One day off per week, if possible: the needs of the animals came first. (I recall I went five weeks one time.) Sleep deprivation was a serious issue. People can get into real trouble when they’re sleepy — particularly driving those active logging roads and lonely highways, as we had to do for supplies and equipment.

Daniel Loxton in sheep camp

“Trailing” sheep on logging road. Daniel Loxton brings up the tail.

The great saving grace is that sheep rest partway through the day. They fill up all morning, and then sit down to ruminate for a while and take it easy. That’s when you get some sleep. You find a spot that’s somewhat sheltered from rain or sun (if you can) and then you just drop like a puppet with its strings cut. Sometimes you wake up in a puddle.

Today, at the ripe old age of 35, I’m retired from the sheep — but my little boy can’t get enough of those old stories. When I tuck him in at night, his “one more story” requests usually sound like this: “Dad, can you tell me the story about the one mean sheep? Please?”

Now, sheep are bright and interesting animals. Scoff if you like, but there it is. By and large they’re pleasant-tempered animals as well. But they display variations of personality, as do other complex mammals. In a flock of 1500, there are always a few bad apples. (At the beginning of every season we’d watch for those bad apples — the ones going right when everyone else is going left — and we’d put bells on them. Then, we’d know what mischief they were getting up to, even when we couldn’t see them.)

Early one season I met one of those bad apples in a most surprising way. I was asleep near the flock, nestled into a little hollow, when I suddenly woke with an agonized “Oooof!” I snapped upright, swearing, and saw a big brockle-faced (multi-colored) ewe standing near me. [See update below.] She stared at me, seemingly with deliberate, hostile disdain. Then, she tossed her head and strolled back into the flock.

“What the hell was that?” I asked. Not far off, Jolene was laughing in shocked disbelief. “She came right out of the flock,” Joe said, “walked right up to you, reared up, and nailed you with both front feet!”

I can tell you, that’s no joke. Big ewes run a couple hundred pounds, and they’re strong, too. This was an extremely memorable misadventure, and my son loves this story. I tell it often. (By way of epilogue, incidentally, we found that sheep and put a bell on her. We also gave her a name. Will you think less of me if I tell you she was named for the meanest girl in our Junior High school?)

Which brings us back to our shepherd’s get-together the other night. It happened that Jolene told that very same story. This was the first time we’d synchronized our memories of that event in a few years, and the outcome was inevitable: there was significant drift. The basic plot was the same — sheep comes out of flock, deliberately kicks me while I’m down — but the details were different. It was a different area, maybe a different year. In her version I was sleeping out on a skid road, not in a hollow. Little things, but big little things.

The other stories we told were the same way. Some diverged. Others just seemed a little too perfect. Did they really happen that way? Listening to the stories — telling the stories — we couldn’t be sure. Not really. Not any more.

Of course, none of this is surprising stuff for skeptics. We know memory is extremely unreliable, malleable stuff — less like a hard drive, and more like leaves floating on a pond. Whenever I hear a paranormal witness tell a tale set decades in the past, I think, “Man, I’m lucky if I can remember what happened on Tuesday.”

And yet, no matter how aware of it we think we are, we forget how much we forget.

For an interesting discussion of the unreliability of memories about memorable events, check out Daniel Greenberg’s Applied Cognitive Psychology article “President Bush’s False ‘Flashbulb’ Memory of 9/11/01″ (PDF) which was adapted for Skeptic Vol. 11, No. 3.

Update (September 30, 2012): Just to drive home the theme of this post, I have a confession. In the article above, I described the sheep who kicked me as “a big brockle-faced (multi-colored) ewe.” After I wrote that, I began to feel uneasy about it. Checking with other shepherds, it became clear that this is the description of another sheep—a particular troublemaker from another season—and not the one who attacked me in my sleep. That sheep was a big Cheviot-looking white-face…at least, according to the prevailing narrative of our pooled recollections. Disconcerting stuff, memory.

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27 Responses to “The Wooliness of Memory”

  1. badrescher says:

    Very nice illustration.

    About 2 years ago I was lecturing on Flashbulb memories (something I’m covering tomorrow – odd coincidence) and a student told the class that she and her sister tell vastly different stories about their September 11th experiences – stories that cannot both be true. Both are certain that their version is the correct version. Nobody knows which, if either, is accurate.

    We don’t have many opportunities to compare our memories to reality. Perhaps the internet will change all that. I wrote something yesterday about my introduction to skepticism 28 years ago. If I had not found a newspaper article about it, I would have written it a little differently. I even remembered the season and year inaccurately.

  2. Max says:

    I bet you remember the kick and the ewe very well. Witnesses have clear memories of the specific thing that scared them, like the gun that was pointed at them when they were mugged.

    I predict that in the future, we’ll wear cameras and microphones, and record everything we see and hear. We already record our text messages and can review old conversations.

    • Paul Hatchman says:

      I wouldn’t be so sure about that.

      I was walking home through a park one night, when a guy tapped me on the shoulder from behind. When I turned around, he clearly showed me he was carrying a long knife in his hand. We spoke back and forth a few times, before his girlfriend run up and pulled him away and they walked off.

      Even just after the event, I found it difficult to describe them to the police. Today, I only really remember the vaguest details of the event. I could not describe what they were wearing or what the knife looked like. In fact except for the fact it was a teenage couple, I struggle to recall much of the incident at all.

  3. MadScientist says:

    Baaaa! I ate the animals I’d had which didn’t behave – but with a flock of 1500 I’d die of overeating (not to mention if the ewe’s for breeding or for wool I’d get into some trouble). Now why didn’t you have horses?

  4. Nicole G says:

    That is so freaking cool. The shepherding, that is, not the fallibility of memory.

    Though, as nice as we think it would be to remember it all as it really happened, it’s a fascinating process of our brains that it creates our personality out of the bits of memory that it processes and remembers, and misremembers. We wouldn’t be who we are without that, right?

    • MadScientist says:

      I don’t know if ‘cool’ is the right word. Like Daniel writes, shepherding is damned hard work. I don’t miss the cattle droving days at all – and I was spoiled – small range and motorbikes, not huge rugged terrain and horses. Imagine having to pack 2 weeks of supplies on your horse and being about half an hour’s ride from the nearest human. That’s just not my definition of cool.

  5. Robo Sapien says:

    From the next American Pie movie: “One night, at sheep camp..”

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. Good article, but I found it to be focused more on the sheep stories than the subject they were intended to illustrate.

    I look at the “flashbulb memory” effect as a sort of natural selection for memories. I see emotions as a survival mechanism, the subconscious mind’s way of getting conscious attention to focus on a particular detail. When a threat is perceived by the subconscious, the most significant details are “burned” to memory the most, and a connection is made with an emotional response. Later on, if those details are picked up again by the subconscious, the emotion is invoked and our conscious mind is “informed” of the detected threat while biochemistry is altered to improve odds of survival. It works the same for perceived benefits. Instead of responding with fear and releasing adrenaline when a hungry person sees food, the emotion of joy is invoked and something else is released (endorphins?).

    So, the 9/11 tragedy was a very emotional moment for everyone. The most important details – like the plane impact – will stay the clearest for the longest, as that data has the most relevance to the emotion we felt when we saw it. The other stuff, like the color of our shirt at the time or what we were eating for breakfast, tend to be less relevant and fade more with time.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      In addendum to my theory, after reading the link above about George W Bush, I think this ties in more with the idea of relevance. Because the less relevant details fade over time, when we try to recall a narrative, those blanks get filled in with the most relevant data available.

      In Daniel’s case, he and his friend were in sync on all points of highest relevance – the sheep leaving the herd, then kicking Daniel. He could have been napping in neither location, but he and friend each recall a different spot because that less significant detail is filled in with the most relevant data available, perhaps Daniel’s usual napping spot.

    • badrescher says:

      Emotions have less to do with “weapons focus” that you might think. The most recent literature shows that having a raw chicken in their hand can produce the same effect.

      Although flashbulb memories are more vivid, they have been shown to be no more accurate or durable than everyday memories.

    • very good, especially about the threat being picked up by the subconscious, and, later on, details picked up again by the subconscious. I suffered from PTSD for years. Was abused as a child, with no memory of the traumatic events. After therapy, and remembering the traumatic events, it all made sense: how i would have an extreme reaction to something that Reminded me of the original occurrence. it was very comforting to find out I was not crazy after all.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Are you speaking of repressed memories? Because that concept was debunked long ago, but there are many cases like yours where people still remember the traumatic events, but never consciously think about them until queried by a therapist.

  6. Majority of One says:

    When I was a child a tornado hit our house in the middle of the night. It took the entire roof off and my entire family including grandparents were all huddled in the closet. After it was “over” we went through the house getting drenched in the downpour and all nine of us took refuge in the car. Anyway, one night a few years ago (it has been close to 35 years since the tornado at this point) my grandmother, me and a few others were talking about that night, and she says, “and remember the dogs that walked through the house while we were making our way to the garage?” “What?” I asked. I tell everyone I remember that night like it was yesterday but I did not remember those dogs. Still don’t. My grandmother says I even pet one of them!

    Also, recently we went back to where we stayed after the tornado hit and I always remembered it as a “red brick colonial with white columns.” We got there and the brick was brown. This really bothered me for a long time that I remembered that house as being red brick. I knew then and there that I would never make a good witness in a court of law. My memory is suspect indeed.

  7. cynderloowho says:

    I think what happens to common memories between people is that the details get blurred but the emotional essence remains…that really is the most important part anyway.

  8. southwesternbelle says:

    Even though I’ve been the family historian for years, I am surprised at how much I get wrong. But, thanks to all the new technology, I can now document significant events, as they happen.

    My family argues, to this day, as to whether or not my mother wore a black or navy dress at her funeral. And thanks to a crappy digital camera (or maybe it was film), we will never be able to settle the argument. (Yes, my deep south family takes photos of dead kinfolk.) If only we had quality photography, we could know for sure the color of her dress, which would end the debate.

    I’m thinking we should hire a professional next time, what do you think?

    And getting oral histories from the elderly (or anybody for that matter) is next to impossible. Reliving wars, depressions, deaths, all affect the memory of the event. Then, if there is something uncomfortable on top of the event, (for instance, the family went broke, but the reason is that Dad gambled the money away) then it’s worse. They will either deny the uncomfortable part, blow the story up to make it look much worse, or deny the event altogether.

    Great article!

  9. southwesternbelle says:

    I should clarify that last sentence. I added the intentional denying part by mistake, (it’s all a part of taking oral histories, and it got mixed in.)

    They may have denied the event 50 years ago, so over time, the memory fades or gets replaced with a different, more comfortable version.

    This is just my experience as an unpaid oral historian.

  10. billgeorge says:

    To paraphrase Voltaire “…certainty is absurb”, and to rely on memories I think it’s wise to question those who claim certainty on events that years since have long passed.

    A good example is UFO claims with Roswell being the classic.
    It took 30 years hence for previous opaque memories only now to become vivid – test dummies are now aliens.

    (or perhaps they were only desert sheep!)

  11. Michael Kingsford Gray says:

    A South Aussie here:
    My memories of sheep-herding are crystal-clear.
    As are my memories of cattle-herding. On horse-back.
    After a few days in the saddle, peeling off yer jocks gave me an insight into ‘bikini-line’ waxing.
    Quite clear: not even remotely romantic.

    BUT! My “memories” of my youth training with the army (in retrospect) are quite absurdly rosy, given the circumstances.
    And no amount of retrospection, even after unexpectedly meeting a mate who reminded me of a colleague who was blown up (a memory that had ‘slipped’ my mind) only partly dented this mainly positive recollection.
    I figure it is the bloom of youth that tints such memories with effusion.

  12. Jeannette says:

    I live in the main sheep pastoral area of Australia (western NSW); I’ve been researching the history of stock management on a pastoral station (=ranch), in particular the changeover from shepherding to new-fangled techniques like fencing in the mid-19th century. We are fortunate to have a 5 year diary, with daily entries, by the station manager,for 1862-67, which covers the last 5 years before fencing, and provides amazing details about how the shepherding system worked. I was unsurprised about the ‘wooliness of memory’ – any historian, especially dealing with oral history is very familiar with this. But I am totally astonished about the shepherding! I thought this only happened in Africa or the Middle East where children tend the goat herds. From the language – ‘Project Managers’ ‘crews’ – this seems quite organised. Where does it occur? Throughout the US? In mountainous country? In Alaska (and what do you do in winter?) (And, well I’m a sceptic, is it really true?)

    • What we did was part of the British Columbia silviculture industry: “Sheep Vegetation Management.” That is, we worked on remote “clear cut” tree plantations (in areas between Prince George in the south and Bell II in the north) to clear competing brush. The industry was built on the happenstance that sheep dislike eating conifers (especially spruce seedlings) and really do like eating herbaceous weeds (especially fireweed), and on the fact that some areas are not appropriate for treatment using chemical herbicide.

      It was very effective and successful for a number of years. Our outfit ran up to four projects at a time (6,000 sheep), with (if I recall correctly) about 30,000 sheep working annually across the BC industry overall. Since then, it has been more or less wiped out by a one-two punch of international trade disputes and global warming. (The entire BC forest industry is in disarray.)

  13. Gary says:

    Thanks Daniel, Life presents many opportunities… which to work and have memories. Your son’s entertainment and edification is paramount.

  14. P K Narayanan(Dr) says:

    Excuse me, I am astonished reading the trash being served in these columns in the name of memory, its unreliability being malleable stuff, its fallibility and so on:

    It is more than seven decades since the physiological basis of mental activities and memory was exposed through scientific experiments. Still some guys find it their birth right to hang on the cursed ideas of conscious, subconscious, super conscious and all that stupid imaginary attributes of mind expounded by people of total subjectivism. Especially, I find this trend much more prevailing in the West, including America and Europe.

    What exactly is memory? Why memory fades? Is the faculty of memory something supernatural to evade reliability when out of god’s grace? My suggestion is that one should spend a little bit of time, which of course would be worthwhile, to understand the cognitive functions of central nervous system, the processes relating to sensations, imaging, perceptions, conceptions and judgment leading to formation of memory. Things and events occurred long back in time are not dumped in a non-existent subconscious mind. If one cannot instantly remember all those that happened in the past, it is the working of the sensory centres in the cortex stage managed by and or through nerve connections called conditioned reflexes necessitated for the safety of the organism. Cursing for this would be ignorance of the first order on the part of the dwellers of dark subjectivism: Not these for skeptics, the least.

  15. mik says:

    I witnessed an incident – the story still amazes me.
    In Southern England in the gardens of a village pub, it was a warm summers evening and a friendly family atmosphere prevailed.
    Two middle aged men (let me call them A and B)left the Bar and walked towards the car park. By pure chance I just happened to be looking in that direction.
    Man B suddenly and without provocation turned to man A and hit him very hard just once, in the mouth. Man A fell to the ground unconscious, his lip split wide open. Man B crouched down beside man A and shouted “stop him, that bast*** just hit my friend”. Man B then acted out the role of the concerned friend and did everything a first aider would do.
    The police were called, man B told his “story” of mysterious man C hitting his friend. Now here comes the strange part… 3 independent witnesses from the immediate vicinity of the assault made witness statements and described man C who they said they saw run to the car park and drive away! There never was a man C and he did not drive away, yet 3 different people felt competent to describe a non existent assailant. My story was not believed by the police as it seemed so unlikely to them.

  16. kisszoltan says:

    Gata, am salvat postul..:)