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Translation and temporary memory lapses

November 11, 2011

I noted with considerable human sympathy Rick Perry’s inability to remember which Federal departments he wished to eliminate (although I have very little political sympathy for his views.)  I am outside the United States right now, so perhaps everyone has already seen the video of Perry’s gaffe; if you have not, here it is:

Separate from any political meaning that this moment might have, I think it is an interesting invitation to think about temporary memory loss.  The other day, when commenting on one of my co-blogger’s posts here, I accidentally typed “vulgar language” when I meant to type “vernacular language.”  (The phrase was not completely wrong, but it is certainly is less correct than I would hope.)

One of the few pieces of coverage that I saw on this gaffe that focused (at least in a shallow way) of temporary memory lapses was this piece from BBC News:

Mr. Perry’s flub was a fairly typical reaction to stress. It illustrates the potential failures of memory in high pressure situations, psychologists and neuroscientists tell the BBC. “Once he missed naming the department of energy the first time, the stress of that event strongly impaired the neural mechanisms of memory retrieval,” says John Guzowski, a professor neurobiology at the University of California at Irvine. “There is a fine line between the amount of stress that is good for memory and that which is bad for memory.”

The human mind has a limited amount of cognitive horsepower, and in stressful situations, other thoughts compete for the use of those resources, memory and cognition researchers say. Mr. Perry may have been keenly monitoring his own performance, for instance, and during the several painful seconds of the encounter he became terrifyingly aware he was making an error.

In Mr. Perry’s case, he was searching his brain for the third government agency but other thought processes intruded, says Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, who studies the interplay between cognition and stress. “He’s worrying about screwing up, and that takes away from important resources that otherwise he could use to search his memory,” she says.

The individual thoughts – the department names – were competing at that moment to get out of Mr. Perry’s mouth like children jumping up and down to be picked for a football team, says Art Markman, a psychologist at the University of Texas, who has followed Mr Perry’s career. The first two – commerce and education – were selected while the third – energy – was not, he says. “The first two items shoved down that third one that he wanted to pull out,” says Mr Markman, author of a forthcoming book Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. “And at the same time he’s thinking about what he’s supposed to say, so he has no resources around to pull out that third one.”

Mr. Perry also may have suffered from a mental block that worked almost as an active force preventing the correct information – the name – from moving to his lips, says MIT neuroscientist John Gabrieli. When he returned to his mental search for the name “Department of Energy,” he may have been dwelling out of habit on the negative consequences of the initial memory lapse, and that drew his attention away from the information he sought, says Dr. Gabrieli. “It’s not the absence of information, but it’s the presence of the wrong thought that’s hard to clear,” he says. “Some other thought comes into your mind that’s not the right one. You know it’s not the right one. Once you get stuck on that thought, it’s an obstacle to the information that’s really in your head.”

Compounding the stress was Mr. Perry’s reputation in the media and among voters as a poor debater, which will have meant he was under self-imposed pressure to produce a good showing on Wednesday night. Research has shown that when people are aware of stereotypes about themselves or their gender or ethnic group, they tend to perform down to those stereotypes as if hampered by a weight, says Ms. Beilock. For example, in studies, when girls are reminded about negative stereotypes of girls’ performance on mathematics exams just before they are to take one, they perform worse, she says.

I suspect all of us are somewhat painfully aware of the phenomenon of temporary memory lapses.  It seems that translation often triggers temporary memory lapses – and it can be quite amusing to watch a translator flail about trying to remember a word in her native language.  (This is particularly interesting in the case of simultaneous translation, where one often hears a translator stuck, muttering “uh, uh, uh.”)  I suspect that the practice of bilingualism puts additional stress on cognitive abilities and makes temporary memory lapse even more common than it is in unilingualism (or is it “monolingualism”?  A temporary memory lapse keeps me from remembering the best term.)  I would be interested to any pointers in the literature on the phenomenon of temporary memory lapses while translating..

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 11, 2011 2:03 am

    I can’t think of any literature on this, but I do know that reading and writing in French exclusively, did irreparable damage to my English spelling ability. I could no longer tell if the spelling “looked right” or not.

  2. November 12, 2011 8:07 am

    Your post makes me think of the film, The King’s Speech and of the history it’s based on:

    and of the (KJV translation of) Exodus 4:10 –

    “And Moses said unto the LORD, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.”

    and of the deadly consequences for a number of Ephraimites for not being able to get out properly the word:

    (שִׁבֹּלֶת) Can we say, “shibbóleth”?

  3. November 12, 2011 9:47 pm

    Suzanne and Kurk, thanks for your comments. I would love to see a more scientific discussion of the temporary memory lapse, particularly in the context of translation.

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