Recently, I attended the deposition of an expert witness. I was the shortstop; someone else was pitching that day. Among the topics explored in depth was a little exercise to test auditory working memory. It was called the Wechsler Immediate Memory Test.
According to the witness, the purpose of the test was to assess whether the subject’s ability to concentrate on a particular task was affected by pain, the side effects of medication, or fatigue.
The day of the deposition was rainy and cold. In the conference room where we were, it was also cold. This improved my concentration.
The witness described the test. It was deceptively simple.
There was a story. The test administrator read the story aloud to the individual being tested. The subject had to recall as many details as he could from the reading after a suitable interval, roughly 35 seconds, had passed. The test was timed.
The story had exactly 26 elements. It took 22 seconds to read the story. I know, because I practiced reading it aloud in my office for the purpose of writing this article. The 22 seconds included a short pause while I located the prompt to halt the stopwatch function on my cell phone, and one cough.
The expert witness read the 22-second story into the record.
He explained how he had scored it.
The subject had recalled the protagonist’s first name, but not her last name. Points were subtracted. The subject left out the section of Boston where the events described in the story allegedly took place. Though he remembered that the heroine was a cook, he did not say that she was employed as a cook. This decreased his score. He recalled that she had been robbed, but didn’t use the exact words from in the story, which said that the victim had been “held up.” This called for an explanation.
It went like this:
Question: So he would have to say both that she was held up and robbed in order to get two points?
Answer: Yes. … Because ‘held up’ refers to a location, State Street, or the night before.
Question: Well, what does the word ‘held up’ mean?
Answer: Whatever the test manufacturer says it means.
Question: Does it mean that she was delayed or does it mean that someone came up and attempted to rob her? What does it mean?
Answer: I don’t know, Counselor.”
The deposition caused me to do some serious soul-searching. Much of what I do consists of listening to people tell stories loaded with details. Some of the details are more interesting than others. Sometimes, I have to spit out these details, or other things bumping around in my random access memory, heavy emphasis on the random nature of that memory, like case citations, names of witnesses, human anatomy, and the availability of sources of chocolate, on a moment’s notice.
On the date of the deposition, when the witness began reading the short story into the record, I decided to test myself.
I left out the part of Boston (South) where the fictional events occurred. I also would have said that the protagonist was a cook, but hoped that if I did, it would be inferred that I meant she was employed as a cook. I remembered the amount of money stolen from the heroine, but not the number of children she had. I would not have used the words “held up.” In fact, I added a detail, not included in the original story, which was that the robber had a gun. I don’t know whether I would have received extra credit, or points off for this.
The individual who actually took the test had a very low score. I performed even more dismally than he had. This made me think that I should take more ibuprofen to modify any pain I was in; to try to control its side effects, which included uncontrollable burping; and get a better night’s sleep.
If none of that worked, I could always try chocolate. •