Golf, Place, Memory

Sunday’s NY Times has a fascinating article by Jeré Longman

In Golf, Moments good and bad are well remembered

The point of the article was that golfers, unlike other athletes, appear to have remarkable memories for athletic experiences. To quote from the article:

Like elephants, they seem to forget nothing. Their minds appear stocked like their bags — tee shots and 3-irons and wedges and putts stored from tournaments played weeks or years ago, able to be summoned for better or for worse.

The general observation is fascinating, and likely true. The article cites pro golfers Ernie Els, Luke Donald and Adam Scott who have precise memories for their golf autobiographies. Their memory abilities seem to be somewhat golf-specific. Els says a conversation with his wife sometimes “goes in one ear and out the other”.

This makes sense to me. As a teen I played several sports (none well): football, basketball, baseball, tennis and golf. Of these five I played golf least frequently. I just did the self-experiment of trying to recall events in my teen years in each sport, giving one-minute per sport.

The results:

  • football: 5 events
  • basketball: 4 events
  • baseball: 4 events
  • tennis: 2 events
  • golf: 10 events

Of these sports the rank-order of amount played was probably:

baseball>basketball>football>golf>tennis.

Moreover, the golf memories were all clear. Each golf memory involved a specific place, a clear picture, and usually a short sequence of events. Although most were exceptional experiences, not all were positive. For example, an especially clear one was when I almost hit my father with a shanked iron. This quick introspective experiment supports the basic idea of the Times article that golf memories are exceptionally numerous and vivid.

The Times article suggests that the basis for excellent golf-memory is that concentration and mental rehearsal are required for golf. To me this seems off the mark. My guess: golf takes place on a golf course. Each course is spatially complex and interesting and has thousands of unique locations. Moreover, analysis of the layout of the course is important for play. For example, before formal play in the US Open Adam Scott planned to play as many as seven practice rounds, saying he needed “to have the local knowledge of a member who has played there for 40 years.”

This suggests that golfers are inadvertently using a well known memory technique, the method of loci or memory palace method. The method of loci, discovered by the ancient Greeks, is described in Joshua Foer’s recent book Moonwalking with Einstein. Foer also has an excellent and entertaining TED talk where he describes the method of loci, and how it can be use to perform seemingly-impossible feats of memorization. The basic steps for the method of loci:

  1. Create a complex spatial layout, like a palace with many rooms, or a golf course with many distinct locations
  2. For memorization, imagine walking through the complex space, laying an item-to-be-remembered at specific locations
  3. For retrieval, imagine rewalking the path. A to-be-remembered item or event will be visualized at each location.

Without intent, this is what golfers appear to do. Adam Scott, in the quote above, appears to create a “memory palace” for a novel golf course. During the golfing event, he lays down memories. When asked to retrieve, the memories are available by association with specific locations on the course.

My interest in the Method of Loci is due to the brain region I study, the hippocampus. There are three remarkable hippocampal findings

  1. People with hippocampal damage have amnesia, memory loss for events in their lives.
  2. In rats, the hippocampus represents “space”, and appears to create maps of the environment (?similar to a human map of a golf course?).
  3. The neurons of the hippocampus are easily modified by natural or artificial experience. The artificial experience model is “long-term potentiation” (LTP).

Although each of these findings is strong, understanding their relationships remains a mystery. The method of loci suggests that there is a fundamental relationship between place and memory. Perhaps, as Penfield, the famous neurosurgeon suggested, the hippocampus is serves as an look-up index for memory. Extending this idea, the spatial framework may be the core of the indexing system. The precise autobiographical memory of golfers, and the memory feats produced by the method of loci suggest a fundamental relationship between space and memory.

I’m curious about what others think. Is my analysis consistent with your experience? Are your memories strongest when associated with places? Is there a fundamental relationship between place and memory?

John Kubie

 

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John Kubie

About John Kubie

I work at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, where my time is divided between research, teaching and avoiding committees. In grad school I studied olfaction in snakes and salamanders, but I’ve been studying the rat hippocampus and its relations to navigation and memory since the 1980s. Bob Muller, Jim Ranck and I were among the first to characterize hippocampal place cells recorded in behaving rats.

Outside of science (and perhaps inside) I’m a boring guy. Interests include people, movies, philosophy, travel, computers and family. I’ve been blogging for less than a year, but it has become a strong interest and hobby. The other blog is http://coronaradiata.net.

3 thoughts on “Golf, Place, Memory

  1. Pingback: Golf, Place, Memory | BrainFacts.org Blog | The...

  2. Hi John,

    an interesting article and it got me thinking so that’s a good thing.

    We develop memories for places by re-visiting them, paying attention to the directions initially and eventually they drop into long term memory. When we first drive a car somewhere we are very conscious of following the signs/maps but once we’ve done it a few times, we’ve created the memory and we no longer need guidance. Playing a golf course is really no different. The golfer needs to know where they are heading and by re-visiting the course, they build this understanding.

    From my experience, I’m not sure that it’s the ‘place’ which creates our strongest memories but the ’emotion’ we experience whilst in that place. If you think about the events you recalled in your sporting life, they all probably had a significant emotional attachment to them, regardless of whether that experience was positive or negative.

    I’m sure you are well aware of the concept of ’emotional attachment memories’. It’s no co-incidence, for instance, that golfers have ‘bogey’ holes where they continue to repeat the same mistakes due to adverse reactions to a previous experience which re-create the same psycho-physiological response when they return back to the same place. I’m sure it happens in most sports where people have created poor associations between place and emotion. This is why how you ‘react’ after an event matters – spit the dummy and it will come back to haunt you!

    Alternatively, if we have a great experience like a ‘hole in one’ – the emotion we associate with that place will stay with us for ever. If we achieved a ‘hole in one’ and did not release a flood of dopamine in response, that shot would be forgotten along with 1000’s of others which we attached no real significance too and never recall long term as you demonstrated in your own self experiment.

    Mental rehearsal, visualization, course management, self belief, attentional focus and state management are just a few of the mental skills a golfer requires to play the game of golf consistently. It’s really a shame that most spend their lives believing it’s their technique which is flawed in golf when the mind leads and the body follows.

    In my opinion, there has to be a strong emotion attached for the ‘place’ to be recalled. It doesn’t matter if this is on the golf course or traveling the world.

    Col.

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    • Hi Col,
      Very interesting. Now you’ve got me to wondering which of these skills and abilities I was most deficient in. I agree about emotions; most of my golf-memories have clear emotional links; at least there was a salient event. But the emotion didn’t have to be that strong.

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  3. I wasn’t taught any of those skills either John so I’ve got a few memories I’m not too proud off when frustration got the better of me out on the golf course. It’s one of the reasons why I have dedicated my life to helping others develop the skill of attentional focus – without it you are basically at the whim of erroneous thoughts and golf doesn’t afford you that luxury!

    I found this interesting article discussing the role of emotion in memory which highlights the number of variables involved in the creation of memories – it clearly is a melting pot of different factors: http://www.memory-key.com/memory/emotion

    Col.

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