News Stories

When Words Get in the Way

In You Can Be Blind & Not Know It, we reported that people see much less than they realize, which is a problem when police take eyewitness statements. Now research reveals that people's memories of a criminal's face are much poorer among eyewitnesses who described what the perpetrator looked like shortly after seeing him, compared with those who didn't?and the words seem to be the problem.

Psychologist Jonathan W. Schooler says this is caused by "verbal overshadowing of visual memories." Studies have found that verbal descriptions impair people's memories of faces and other hard-to-describe things as well, like the taste of wine or the sound of a person's voice.

In order to study the verbal-memory problem, Schooler showed volunteers a 30-second video of a man robbing a bank. Participants then spent 20 minutes doing something else. Afterwards, half of the group was asked to write a detailed description of the robber's face. Then all of the participants tried to identify the robber from a group of 8 photographs, only one of which showed the real "criminal." Two-thirds of the people who did not write down a description picked the correct photo, compared to only one-third of those who wrote down what he looked like. The words got in the way.

But why? At first, Schooler thought that errors in the descriptions changed the way people visualized the suspect. When it?s hard to find words to describe someone, our visual memories may change to fit our verbal description. However, Schooler now thinks the act of describing a face causes the brain to go from a visual to a word-based mode. And once we do that, it's hard to recall our visual memories, because we're using the wrong part of our brain.

Kim Finger asked people to write a description of a man's face after studying the face for 5 minutes, and found they suffered no memory loss if she first got them back into a visual state of mind. To do this, Finger asked them to follow a printed maze or listen to 5 minutes of instrumental music. After doing one of these tasks, they could identify the correct face at the same rate as the volunteers who didn't write down a description.

Schooler found that verbal descriptions disrupted white volunteers' ability to identify whites more than blacks, and thinks this might be because they had more experience looking at white faces, so could sum them up more easily in words. They had to spend more time looking for individual characteristics in black faces, meaning the images became more imprinted in the visual parts of their brains.

Research on verbal overshadowing challenges the idea that language is necessary for thought. "Various forms of inexpressible knowledge may be best served by avoiding the application of language," Schooler says.

Albert Einstein said, "I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards."

Talk about words?Find out why William Henry describes our earliest language as ?the language of the birds.?

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