Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Deciphering Derren: The CARFAX Clue

In episode 1 of Trick or Treat 2, Derren Brown puzzled us all by apparently teaching Glen Brighton a speed-learning system that enabled Glen to take second place in a pub quiz tournament.

Here at About Derren Brown, we speculated about how the trick was done. We even heard from Glen Brighton himself.

The Carfax Clue

A cryptic comment from dvdwlsh offered the following clue to unraveling DB's trick:

"Carfax". Explore that and you find your answers. Well played, Derren.

"Carfax" was one of two correct answers given by Glen to trivia questions asked by Derren in the episode.

totalsuperbot expanded on that clue by commenting:

I searched Carfax and found some papers/articles on...''Capture and rumination, functional avoidance, and executive control (CaRFAX): Three processes that underlie overgeneral memory ''Google Carfax Memory. I didn't get time to look into it further.

A Little Research

I did, in fact, Google "Carfax Memory." The results were not helpful, but they all pointed to a particular book, entitled Autobiographical Memory Specificity and Psychopathology (a special issue of "Cognition & Emotion" published by Psychology Press).

I was determined to get to the bottom of this Carfax issue, even if it ended up being a red herring. So, I went to work locating a copy of the book. (I unfortunately did not have a copy in my personal library, having inadvertently allowed my subscription to "Cognition & Emotion" to lapse).

The book arrived today and is, for the most part, indecipherable. A collection of scientific papers about memory, it is clearly written for an audience of psychological scholars. Despite the technical language, though, I think the book's concluding remarks might shed some light on the theory behind Derren's memory trick:

The papers in this collection show enormous promise that the phenomenon of overgeneral memory is being understood more and more clearly, both what causes it and the mechanisms that underlie it. As we said at the outset, memory is like a crossroads. Our ability to learn from experience and to remember what has happened in the immediate and remote past stands at the centre of all information processing, and at the centre of how we understand ourselves and navigate successfully through our world. We have seen that memory can be adversely affected (a) when our retrieval is hijacked by other material that is self-relevant, triggering analytic, conceptually based processing (capture and rumination: CaR); (b) when our retrieval is aborted due to learned passive avoidance strategies (functional avoidance: FA); (c) when retrieval is affected either at the early specification stage or at the affective gating stage by reduced effort, initiative or resources (executive control or capacity: X). We started by comparing memory with the crossroads at the centre of Oxford. You may already know the name of this crossroads, or may have guessed: It is called Carfax.


If this CaRFAX psychological theory is relevant to Derren's Brown's trick, maybe DB used psychological principles to remove one or more of the three mental processes listed above, and therefore improve Glen's ability to remember specific facts (i.e., to not over-generalize).

In defense of this theory, Derren does frequently refer to studies about the mind in his shows.

On the other hand, the Carfax reference could be to the crossroads at Oxford, to crossroads generally, or to nothing at all.

If you have any thoughts on the matter, please let me know via comment (below) or e-mail.


Akando said...

Hi Mr. William, your blog is very interesting to read, I feel that carfax operates like a huge database of vehicle history information which is maintained by insurance companies. The money you spend to get the details from carfax is worth while buying a used car, but you have to understand the limitations of carfax.

Autoselect - Used Cars, New Cars, Buy a Car, Sell your Car, Price your Car

Dud4 said...

Both Carfax and Autocheck use the same data provider as NHTSA. So there's no difference between them.