Rob St. Amant

Rob St. Amant
December 31
My roots are in San Francisco and later Baltimore, where I went to high school and college. I stayed on the move, living for a while in Texas, several years in a small town in Germany, and then several more in Massachusetts, working on a Ph.D. in computer science. I'm now a professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. My book, Computing for Ordinary Mortals, will appear this fall from Oxford University Press.


MARCH 16, 2011 7:06PM

Movies, vision, and writing

Rate: 10 Flag
If you're watching an action thriller (I have unfortunate tastes in movies), you'll sometimes see a guy with a gun drawn, hiding behind a pillar in a garage. He'll poke his head out and then pull back too fast for the bad guys (or possibly the good guys) to put holes in him. But that split second is enough for him to see where those bad guys (or good guys) are.
How does this work? George Sperling, in his 1959 Harvard Ph.D. dissertation, gave us an explanation—though he ran his experiments in a laboratory with a tachistoscope (an old-fashioned projector with a timing device), rather than in an underground garage with guns. His experiments worked along these lines. You're looking at a blank screen, and you see very briefly (for 50 milliseconds) an  array of letters and numbers. For example, it might look like this:

7 I V F

X L 5 3

B 4 W 7

You then write down all the characters you remember having seen. Here's something interesting: As you're writing, you have the feeling that you can remember all the characters, but you're forgetting some of them before you can put them down on paper. To test this possibility, Sperling did something clever. You watch the screen, see the characters, and then you hear a tone that tells you which row to write down. It turns out that you're perfectly capable of doing this accurately, whichever row is indicated, even if you don't remember what you saw in the other rows.
This is pretty cool: we do see and remember a great deal of what's presented to us, it's just that the information doesn't stay around for very long. You probably know that our memory can be broken down into different categories, depending on its characteristics; for example, long-term memory is for information that we generally describe as "what we know". Some of the categories are less familiar outside psychology, but they're just as interesting, such as visual short-term memory.
And I'm describing this because...? I'm writing a book, and I spend a good deal of time crafting sentences and paragraphs in my head. Once I start to write them down, though, the sentences often fall apart. I can't quite remember how I've expressed my ideas. This isn't the same phenomenon that Sperling studied, but it's similar enough in spirit that I was reminded of his work.

G. Sperling (1960). The information available in brief visual presentation, Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 74, 11: 1-29. [pdf]

Author tags:

psychology, science

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
That happens to me all the time...forgetting what was in my head. Little did I know that I was in the midst of my own little experiment. I need tones. I wonder if I can make some tonal tefillins--those would be if I think I need to remember something I just whack it.
I write try to of but get out whack order of out sequence
Hey, Barry! Something else we have in common, though on the unfortunate side. :-)

And thanks for teaching me a new word. Telefillin (Google wants me to look at telefilms--much less interesting.)
Hi, Tom, long time I haven't visited with you either. I have that problem, too, but it's at the sentence level rather than the word level. And when I have two set pieces I'm trying to fit together, it's a total pain.

I'm wondering if this relates at all to the idea of introverts and extroverts, particularly that idea that introverts process information on the inside and spew gems while extroverts (myself included) unfortunately spew the entire process, brainstorming through revision through editing. What I'm saying is that maybe that worry about forgetting ideas is a real danger for extroverts, while introverts have some greater ability to juggle all that in their short-term memory while they're dealing with it. Similarly the chess player who can keep all those moves in his head. Linear people like me can only seem to keep the next two moves or so. If I had a few side boards, I could play them "out loud" for practice and compensate for the nonremembering.
Well, huh. I'm definitely an introvert, so if there's some secret mental capacity I should have to keep everything together, I think I'm going to have to ask for a personality refund.

I encounter the very same problem frequently; I have a clear thought, even have the wording I want, but once I start writing it down, everything gets lost. Then I have to stop, try to retrace my thoughts, and hope that I can recover what I lost.


That's a very interesting comment, and the tie-in to Chess is especially interesting. Whatever your process is, it seems to work well for you.

Perhaps you're starting to develop what my late mother-in-law termed "craft disease:" can't remember a fucking thing. An enterprising medical team could combine Sperling's experiment with an eye chart. To what end, I don't know. I'm available for proofing chapters.
I too often do "constructs" in my head. Worthless. I come up with the most ingenious sentences........ that disappear at the touch of a keyboard (or pen). I write best when I just let it fall out of my fingers. It is almost impossible for me to stay on topic. I love letting my mind just wander around on its own picking up and laying down whatever takes its fancy.

In the end, I look over what I've written, try to edit a bit, then hit "publish". My favourite kind of writing is "comments". Some get to be blog length, but they just flow!!!! Everything I write has a life of its own. Often I just cannot get an essay to go where I want it to go.

What does this have to do with your blog? Not so much, but this is what came out ;-)

And all this time I thought it was just me.
quit trying so hard to get it perfect and just spew, reorganize the info later into something more coherent (or don't, if you are like me ;)
Fascinating. I was going to write more, but I can't remember it. . . .

I've had that experience: creating what felt like a perfect paragraph in the head and then not being able to replicate it at the keyboard. Hate when that happens. You'd think something more personally salient would stay around longer.
Hi, everyone! I always feel this sense of nostalgia when I have the time to visit OS.

Rick, I'm glad I'm not alone in this. I do exactly what you do, retracing my thoughts.

Thanks for the offer, Stim. I'll think about what I need...

Like you, skypixie0, I'm often very pleased with the sentences in my head. It's like singing in the shower, though--once the effort is put out into the real world, it's not quite a match for my expectations.

It's not just you, Steve. It's good to see you.

Julie, I actually do what you suggest--in fact, I've been working on just two hard paragraphs for the past few days, writing and rewriting, over a thousand words that will be filtered down into maybe a hundred or so. But I have a lot of time when I can't be typing, so I put it to use composing. Or, given the overall result, "decomposing" might be a better word.

Hey, AHP. It's sounding as though lots of good writers have the same difficulty.
One thing I've noticed with my writing, you may find the same, is that I am often too close to it. I have a thought in my head but I just can't express it in writing. It comes out all wrong. For me, just putting it away for a week, until it is no longer "flesh of my flesh and blood of my blood" lets me see it in a more critical light. I can't tell you how often, upon re-reading after a week, the problem just jumps off the page at me.

One person sent me a nifty wee story that he was having trouble with. Since I was seeing it with fresh eyes I spotted what seemed to be a glaring problem - he was writing in 3rd person instead of 1st. Another person told him the same thing. He adjusted it and was well pleased with the results. He did such a good re-write that I really enjoyed that little tale when he was done.

If I can be of any help, my experience as an editor/publisher is always at your service. All I charge is one can of Fancy Feast or tuna fish and a belly rub..... ;-)
Thanks for the advice and the offer of help, skypixie0. You're definitely right about being too close to things. I have to work on different chapters at different times to get a bit of distance.
I think it's an essential property of memory that it separate what we know from how we know it. Otherwise, we'd have the problem we have in text where we search for a word and don't find it because we typed it in lowercase and it was written in uppercase. The memory you're talking about that's hyper-ephemeral is probably like registers in machine language, mostly for temporary use, and probably there is the usual 7 +/- 2 of them... You could vary the number of lines or length of lines and see if there's a cross-over where people mostly can remember. I bet it's around there. And there may be chunking techniques you could teach someone. For example, if it were just one's and zeros and was susceptible to being seen as a whole in octal or hex by someone skilled in reading that off, could they remember more or all of the lines?
That is why I keep a notebook with me at all times.