I've made a kluge mistake


Can't remember what you had for breakfast yesterday? This common situation is not a result of poor memory, says Gary Marcus, an NYU psychology professor, but rather a poorly organized memory. In a Tuesday night talk promoting his new book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind (Houghton Mifflin Co.), Marcus explained that your brain translates the question, "What did you have for breakfast yesterday?" into "breakfast, kind of recently," which then turns up a "whole bunch of breakfasts that blend together." We rely on clues to remind us of particular details but need the right cue to pull up the correct fact. People may not immediately recall who the 16th president of the United States was, Marcus said, but if reminded that he helped free the slaves, Abraham Lincoln immediately jumps to mind.

This imperfect filing system of a memory, Marcus said, comes from an "evolutionary kluge." An engineering term, a kluge is "a clumsy or inelegant—yet surprisingly effective—solution to a problem," he writes in his book. Instead of a complex supercomputer, our mind is in fact the outcome of an evolutionary process that doesn't aim for perfection. It goes for good enough: "satisficing," Marcus called it, borrowing a term coined by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, AB'36, PhD'43. Evolution has no foresight or hindsight and always works with what's already there—Darwin's idea of "descent with modification." While Google can retrieve stored information with the push of a button, the mind is organized more like an "old shoebox," Marcus said, cluttered with old photographs and tzotchkes.

A far more dangerous manifestation of the breakfast-memory scenario, Marcus relates, involves his "favorite" (albeit dark) statistic: about six percent of skydiving deaths are caused by practiced skydivers failing to pull the ripcord. They've done it so many times that they can't remember whether they've already done it; all the times before blend together. As Marcus pointed out, it's a good thing pilots make checklists before they fly.


Photo: Gary Marcus talked kluges with an audience that included William Wimsatt (front row, in blue), Chicago's Peter B. Ritzma professor in philosophy and evolutionary biology, and Barbara Wimsatt, AM'61, AM'89, PhD'97.

April 30, 2008