Tuesday, December 17, 2013

History, memory, and reconsolidation

A great discussion this morning on On Point with Jay Parini got me thinking about human memory and what I have learned recently about re-consolidation of episodic memory.

The topic of the show was the history, mythology, and religion surrounding our knowledge of who Jesus really was.  There is a lot there, so I am just going to focus on one piece.  The Gospels were written 20-40 years or so after the events occurred.  The recent anniversary of JFK's assassination and the death of Nelson Mandela provide some good modern analogies.  Out of everything you heard last month about JFK and last week about Mandela, how much of it was perfectly true, patently false, or totally ambiguous?  I think a lot of it falls into that latter category. 

Here is where re-consolidation comes in. Every time we recall a memory (for example of JFK's actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis or Mandela's actions to give the black South African's the vote), the memory gets reframed in the context of our current situation.  This is not intentional nor is it a good or bad thing, it is just a function of the way the hippocampus and frontal cortex are wired together.  They are using this phenomenon to treat PTSD by having soldiers recall painful experiences in an environment where they feel peaceful and safe.  The two feelings get mixed together and the memory becomes less painful. 

We can do the same thing with details surrounding a memory.  Imagine yourself running around the playground when you were in grade school.  You are either remembering a photo of yourself at that age or you are imagining what you currently look like only shorter.  This second option is reconsolidation.

So what does this have to do with Jesus, JFK, and Mandela?  With the cold war over, we can think of JFK's decisions in a much more positive light.  With Mandela's subsequent leadership of South Africa, we can do the same thing with his earlier terrorist activities.  I saw a lot of this reframing going on in the past months.  The same thing most likely happened with all historical figures, including Jesus.  Those days were very exciting to say the least.  There was chaos in much of the Middle East.  The various sects that were splintering off the mainstream Jews were looking for messiahs.  In those 20-40 years, a lot happened that would have affected how Jesus the historical figure was seen. 

So no matter what you think of his religious identity, everyone who remembered him would have a very different perspective depending on their frame of reference 40 years later.  Even if Jesus was divine, the people remembering him were most definitely human and had brains wired for reconsolidation.  Their memories could not be anything other than blended, muddled, mixes of actual memories, imagined memories, and current ideas.  Contradictions in the Gospels is not evidence of lying, cheating, or exaggerating, just reconsolidation at work.  Not much help when trying to decide what to believe.

Easy product views on hover

The second two UX elements that Graham points out are fundamentally the same idea – using the hover function to support effective browsing.  He notes that on Lilly Pulitzer (which sells women’s apparel), when you hover over a product photo (such as a model wearing a Lilly Pulitzer dress) on a search results page or on a category page it shows you the rear view.  On Land’s End, you can easily see an item in a variety of colors.  Underneath each product photo there is a palette of colors that the item is available in.  When you click on one of them, the item photo changes to that color without reloading the page.

For a wide variety of shopping use cases, seeing the rear view of an item and seeing the item in different colors are both very important.  Using the hover control makes it easier and faster.   How many times have you looked at a browsing function, estimated how long it would take for the page to load, multiplied this by the number of times you would have to use it while browsing the variety of products you want to consider, and then decided not to bother?  To use this function, you would either have to invest a lot more time than you planned or you would have to consider just a few items.  Not worth it. 

I think the logic behind this is pretty generalizable.  Any voluntary experience is a constant effort/benefit evaluation.  How much physical and mental effort will it be and what will I get out of it?  So any UX element has to be a net positive on this equation to be used and valued.  Changing to a hover function from a page load reduces the time and the frustration levels for the same benefit (additional views of the item).  There are some users on one extreme who would have used either version because they value the additional views very highly.  There are some users on the other extreme who would not bother with either version because they don’t value the additional views much at all.  But for those in the middle, we can add to their shopping experience and increase sales and satisfaction. 

The vendor would have to judge the number of users in this middle category given its demographics and product category and compare that to the programming cost of the hover function.  If you have decent data on these, it is a clear decision.

We can complicate this by also throwing in a variable like the time it takes for the hover effect to kick in.  If it is too long, the user may never realize that the function exists.  If they click and get taken to a detailed product page from the gallery page, then it defeats the purpose.  But this is a subject for another post.