Forget about it: The polar bear experiment

Forget about it: The polar bear experiment
Photograph by Margaret H. Laing.

The most memorable hour I spent in my psychology class at Valparaiso University was all about forgetting.

We were told that were were going to study forgetting, and to do that, we could think about anything — as long as it wasn’t polar bears.

So that was fun, letting my mind go off and play for a while. But eventually, the professor said “Have you forgotten about polar bears?”

If you’re the least bit like everybody in that class, dear reader, you just groaned. The words “polar bears” brought the animals immediately to mind, didn’t they?

The professor didn’t let it end there. He said that he didn’t know when we’d all last thought about polar bears before class, but now this would be a better measure — from that first question in class to the next time we got checked on.

So off we went, thinking about anything except you-know-whats. It all went fine, but then a certain time went by and we all heard another question: “Have you forgotten about polar bears?”

That was when we knew it: Forgetting can’t be forced. I’ve had to turn off the radio already this morning, Sept. 10, because of all the almost-20-year-old stories being talked about. I will keep busy today to ward them off a little longer.

So I will keep busy as much as I can today and Saturday, the 10th and 11th.

For one thing, my curio cabinet needs cleaning up.

I want my polar bear figurines to be front and center.

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  • The problem is that too much of the news is the same. Maybe the media feels the need to educate 16 year olds on 9-11. As today's Pearls Before Swine indicates, the news media is not the place to do it.

    On the other hand, I've had too many doctors say "remember blue ball, yellow flower, and $20 bill and I'll get back to you in 10 minutes." That isn't my problem.

  • In reply to jack:

    Maybe we should be relieved at the anniversary stories already cropping up. When I was working for a news wire service, anniversary stories were worked only when nothing much new was happening. I think that's part of the JFK anniversary stories -- the closer Thanksgiving is to the afftected days, the more stories seem to crop up from the history books. That and the anniversaries ending in 5 or 0, of course, as we're seeing this month. December will be interesting as well.

    Education is certainly part of the thinking, but I don't think it's as much as just filling in space and/or time. When you are in business to tell stories, silence won't do.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Whoops -- affected days, of course. Sore hand today.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Unfortunately, filling time or space is part of it. When WGN has 12-1/2 hours of news a day, and ABC7 has 6-1/2 of local news, they have to fill it with something. Even if it involves different people, the repeated "50 people were shot and 7 died, and nobody is in custody" and "these people won't get vaccinated" become numbing.

  • In reply to jack:

    They do. The trick is to remember that the newscasts are there to catch up when you need them and leave them when they start getting repetitive.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    That's how they should be handled, but I don't think the media outlets want that. I remember when my father was fixated on Newsradio 78, even though I said they were misrepresenting stuff.

    Maybe that's why the news networks on cable have given up on news at night and just have opinion. Even during the day, they'll have a one-minute statement of the story, and then "let's go to" some talking heads on a split screen. When CNN started doing that, it founded Headline News, but HLN is basically just true crime. It was of some value during the Chauvin trial, but otherwise not.

  • I do appreciate peoples' stories about that day--the long-distance truckers and waitresses, teachers and school kids, lawyers, reporters, etc.

    As you know, the Museum closed early, and I didn't go in to work on Tuesday. I spent much of the day outside, doing yard work. Not a plane or bird in the sky.

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    I appreciate the stories, too. Thank you for yours.

    I was at work past midnight myself, putting out two very local suburban papers -- one for the first time. I remember taking breaks all that week and noticing the lack of sounds of planes in the sky.

    Sometimes I still flinch at the sounds of planes, and the air show a few weeks ago was a terrifying time to be downtown. As I have for 20 years now, I will be looking at the skyline and savoring the fact that it's all still there.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Yes! The Air Show is a frightening reminder for me, too.

  • Using your forget the polar bear experiment (but not its bearing on 9/11 remembrances) it is similar to an example I used in discussing the effectiveness of instructions to jurors to ignore testimony stricken from the record. I would tell someone, "Do NOT think of your left earlobe! Under NO circumstances are you to think of your left earlobe!" The result, of course, is they cannot avoid thinking about that which they would be very unlikely to think of otherwise.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    I never thought that instruction was worth anything. Apparently, neither do those who ask improper questions.

  • In reply to jack:

    The only value I can see in it is if a complex case means the jury must have a printed record.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    The jury doesn't get a printed record. The best it can get is asking that certain parts of the transcript be read back. The record is only for appeal, but the appellate court presumes that the jurors followed the admonition, unless the remark was sufficiently prejudicial.

    That gets back to what was the point of the polar bear example? By mentioning the doctor exercise, my point was whether I could remember the sequence, while jnorto's courtroom point was whether the jurors could forget it.

  • In reply to jack:

    Jack, to clarify my point about the polar bears, here's another explanation: You can think of something, decide to remember it, and hang onto that memory. But deciding to forget something is so tied up in checking on "Have I forgotten what I want to forget?" that it makes the thing you'd rather forget harder to forget. So once I'd seen all I wanted of the 20th anniversary observances today, I finished the book I was reading, put the trash out, went to the grocery, and, of course, checked in here. Now off to start a different book and tidy up those model bears. No quizzing about whether I'm forgetting.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    So, it was closer to jnorto's take. Thanks.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    That "stricken from the record" business should be the last time the stricken items get mentioned. Good call.

  • I usually write things down I don't want to forget. They may be words, famous quotes, or passages from books that I read.

    Repetition may lead to boredom at times, but it's a tried and true method of remembering things. Another way to remember, of course, is to make a connection between what you want to remember and something else. I've used this to remember, for example, the names of my doctors. That's how Dr. Geiger's name immediately registers in my mind. Or take Dr. Liston's name, I know it will readily ring a bell.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Dr. Geiger set off some beeping in my mind. As for Dr. Liston, I thought of Dr. Lister by mistake and got a bad taste in my mouth. There was a real-life Watson working with Alexander Graham Bell, and he distracts me, too. So I hate to admit it, but I'm stumped about Dr. Liston. Do tell.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    The only thing that comes up on Google is some doctor in the SW suburbs. So, AW would have to explain how that connects.

    Most of the doctors I have recently had have unpronounceable names, impossible to associate with anything. An interesting aside is that I asked to see a doctor with a Polish name, and the receptionist and assistants asked "what kind of doctor is he?" and finally "do you mean Dr. Richard?" Then I realized that all of them were South Asians.

  • In reply to jack:

    I look forward to the explanation. My two best doctor stories are Dr. Macmillan, my former dentist, who told me that something would hurt a wee bit. My Scottish relatives had told me just how small that was, and I was comforted.

    My other one is my present eye doctor, Dr. Watson. Dad and I agreed that there would be only one chance, so I greeted him with Holmes's first line to Watson, "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."

    I had to explain what that was from. My real-life Watson had never read the stories!

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