What Celebrity Sightings Tell Us About Memory - Pacific Standard

What Celebrity Sightings Tell Us About Memory

Everyone thinks they remember those big moments perfectly—but usually people rely on the memory of the story, rather than the memory itself.
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This face—and the cappuccino it sipped on—is forever seared into Rick Paulas' mind. (Photo: hbart/Flickr)

This face—and the cappuccino it sipped on—is forever seared into Rick Paulas' mind. (Photo: hbart/Flickr)

I don't mean to be a name-dropper, but: I've had breakfast with Jeff Goldblum, partied with David Cross, and gone grocery shopping with Kate Winslet. Granted, none of these people knew I was with them at the time. They just happened to be in the same time/space as me. So goes life in Los Angeles. Live there for long enough, and you'll have a collection of celebrity sightings as well.

(The Best One: I peed next to Marilyn Manson after a screening of Paranormal Activity 3, and don't think that didn't have a traumatic effect on the 14-year-old inside of me who thought Manson was, quite literally, an agent of the devil.) 

I've had breakfast with Jeff Goldblum, partied with David Cross, and gone grocery shopping with Kate Winslet. Granted, none of these people knew I was with them at the time.

The thing about each sighting, however, is that I can recall everything about the event. Jeff Goldblum was at The Griddle in Hollywood, sipping a cappuccino after stirring it neurotically for 20 straight minutes. David Cross was chugging a canned PBR at a house party that was in honor of nearby Silverlake Junction. And Kate Winslet was picking up cheese and bread at a Ralph's in Malibu. I can even remember what I was wearing at the time. These events happened years ago, and I have no problem closing my mind and re-entering their details. In direct opposition to the ease of those recalls, I can't remember what I ate this morning, among other embarrassing memory gaps that drive my partner (among others) into fits of rage.

So, just what's going on here? Why do I remember the smallest details of these random celebrity sightings, but have a difficult time with events in my own life? Turns out, there's a term for that, and it's one you may already know: flashbulb memory.

“The prototypical one was the JFK assassination,” says Charles Weaver, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor. “For us, it's 9/11.”

The term was first coined in 1977 by psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulik. Their research showed that events with an emotional impact were seared into the memory, just as an image sears photographic film. On a grand everyone-can-relate scale are events like JFK's or MLK's assassination, 9/11, Pearl Harbor, or the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. If you were coherently alive during any of those, you have almost complete recall of what you were doing, where you were, who you were with, and what you were wearing when you first heard about it. (“Never forget” isn't just a galvanizing slogan, then. It's an impossibility.)

But beyond those universals, there are also personal events that impact us the same way. This is where my own celebrity sightings come in.

“Getting the phone call where you found out dad died, or being asked to get married,” Weaver says. “What makes those stand out is what makes any of that stand out: They're important, they're distinctive, they're emotional.”

The sightings were distinctive events: I saw a person that has this elevated position as a Celebrity just living their everyday life, just like myself. (US Weekly was right all along!) And the impact of that sighting forced my mind to take a mental snapshot of the event, saving it for posterity.

Of course, odds are that a lot of those details are wrong.

“Turns out, when you begin to look at people's memories in those [flashbulb] circumstances, they're not as accurate as everyone thinks they are,” Weaver says.

Actually, they're about as accurate as any of our other memories. One of Weaver's first studies told participants to recall an actual “flashbulb event,” and then had them recall a memory of an ordinary event that Weaver prodded them to. “What you saw was no changes in accuracy,” Weaver says. “But the genuine flashbulb memory people reported with significantly higher confidence.”

The disconnect between these two—the accuracy and confidence of a memory—has to do with the act of memory stabilization. “Especially for the [first] month or so, details of people's memories of what they were doing, where they were, tended to shift,” Weaver says. “Beyond a month or two, going out for a year or maybe two, the story doesn't change much. What we do is we get our stories straight. And what you're telling time after time after time isn't the memory itself, but the memory of the story you got.” And because the story of the memory remains the same for such an extended period of time, we trust that it's accurate. It hasn't wavered under heavy interrogation, so it's legit.

“What we do is we get our stories straight. And what you're telling time after time after time isn't the memory itself, but the memory of the story you got.”

“The story that you tell about 9/11 may not be what actually happened,” Weaver says, “but it'll be the same story you'll tell your grandkids.”

(It's not always so benign: That confidence, in the wrong setting, can easily send an innocent person to prison.)

Maybe that special time I shared at the Malibu Ralph's with Oscar-winner Kate Winslet didn't actually happen: at least, not exactly how I remembered it did. “Your memory that it was Kate Winslet, that's probably correct,” Weaver says. “The location of where you saw her, probably. What you were actually holding in your hands, probably not. What you were wearing, even less so.”

But in those memories, it's not like I'm carrying, and wearing, nothing. Something has to fill in the blanks. That process is called normalization, in which memory substitutes more recent experiences for similar ones in the past. What I was wearing back then, in my memory, is probably something that's sitting in my closet right now, given that that clothing's in the forefront of my mind. And what Winslet was actually shopping for (cheese and bread, in my memory) perhaps says more about my current eating habits than her past ones.

“If you ask people if they drank Diet Coke in the '70s, people go, 'Of course,'” Weaver says. They've been drinking it so long, they think that it's been around their entire lives. “But Diet Coke didn't come out until the mid-'80s.”

Right about now you may be thinking “stupid brain, why are you such a big dummy,” but this is all actually proof of just how efficient the mind is. Rather than being stuffed with useless information, it automatically curates only the hits. “Remembering to turn left at that fork in the forest or you're going to run into the tiger, that's a really important thing to remember,” Weaver says. “The long-term benefit of exactly what you were wearing when you ran into a celebrity at the grocery store, that's not.”

So how can we use this knowledge to form more accurate memories?

“The best way to remember personal events is by writing them down,” Weaver says. “Just the act of writing it out causes you to stop and pay attention. And now you have a permanent record that you can go back and look at. You have very good reason to believe your recollection of an event that occurred an hour or two before is probably right most of the time.”

If you don't have any paper and your pen's rolling around the bottom of the laundry machine, Weaver suggests taking advice from Pam on The Office and taking a “mental picture.” The act of focusing on an event, even for a solitary moment, can be enough to remember it accurately. Of course, if you try to do that during a celebrity sighting, you may end up speaking with the security detail. Especially if you're trying to pull that with Marilyn Manson one urinal over.

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