The Zeigarnik effect: Uncompleted Tasks and Passover Memory

"There is a story of a certain pious man who forgot a sheaf of grain in his field [thereby allowing him to fulfill the commandment of leaving the forgotten sheaf in the field for the poor Deuteronomy 24:19]. He said to his son, 'Go and make an offering...'  His son said, 'Father, what makes you so happy about doing this commandment more than any other commandment?'  The pious man answered, 'The All Present One gave us all the other commandments in the Law to do on purpose, but this one [which involves forgetting] cannot be done on purpose.'"  Tosefta Peah 3:8

I was re-reading John Gottman's The Science of Trust today in between various tasks of preparation for Passover, the holiday of interrupted memory. 

In 1922, a petite 21 year-old newlywed Jewish woman named Bluma Zeigarnik sat in a cafe in Vienna and watched as professional waiters listened carefully to huge orders from large gatherings without writing anything down. Then she watched as the waiters flawlessly filled their orders. Always the astute observer, Zeigarnik later interviewed these waiters. As they moved rapidly from table to kitchen to table, she found they remembered everything the customers asked for. However, when she interviewed the waiters after they had filled the orders, they had forgotten everything... This later was coined the ‘Ziegarnik effect’. It is defined as follows. We have better recall for events that we have not completely processed. Zeigarnik found that on average, there is 90% better recall for ‘unfinished events’ than for events we have somehow completed.
Paul Klee's Angelus Novus.  Walter Benjamin said of this painting "His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."

Paul Klee's Angelus Novus.  Walter Benjamin said of this painting "His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."

Zheyna Bluma Gerstein was born in 1901 in Lithuania, in the town of Prenai.  In one sense, that sentence tells you everything need to know of Bluma Zeigarnik nee Gerstein.  To be born in that place, at that time, with the name Gerstein, was to be on a collision course with one of humankind's most ambitious projects in the obliteration of memory.  Her work's title "Remembering Completed and Uncompleted Tasks" could be an understated, Proustian premonitory description of Europe and its Jews over the next 50 years.  Bluma Zeigarnik was writing a fortune cookie oracle to herself.

She marred Albert Zeigarnik when she was eighteen.  They moved to Berlin and she studied psychology with Kurt Lewin.  "Remembering Completed and Uncompleted Tasks" was published in 1927 and she received a doctorate from the University of Berlin.  Albert became a communist in the face of mounting Fascism.  In 1931, the couple moved to Soviet Moscow.  No more Viennese waiters with flawless memories.  There she could not claim the title of Doctor since a PhD was considered bourgeois and ideologically suspect.  She studied post-traumatic dementia and published little.  She worked with two greats of Russian psychology, Lev Vygotsky and Aleksander Luria, both of whom eventually ran afoul of Soviet repression of unorthodox scholarship, Lysenkoism and anti-Semitism.  Luria is famous among non-specialists for his case study, "the Mind of a Mnemonist," the story of S., also a Jew, a synesthete with a very nearly boundless memory who performed great feats of memorization in public, quickly looking at huge tables of numbers which he reproduced flawlessly.  S. eventually encountered the difficulty of being unable to forget the tables of numbers.  He was afraid that he would confuse the tables because he could see them all before his eyes long after they had been erased.  He resorted to various devices, technologies for forgetting.

[H]e began to throw away and then to burn the papers on which was written the material he needed to forget...
However the “magic of burning” did not help and one time, throwing the paper with the written numbers into a burning oven, he saw that on the remaining burned paper the traces still remained and he was in despair: it means that even fire cannot erase the traces of that which was supposed to be destroyed!
The problem of forgetting, which did not allow any naïve methods of burning papers, became one of the most tormenting problems with S.
— Ivan Samokish's translation http://fusionwriter.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/A-Small-Book-About-A-Big-Memory.pdf

In 1940, Albert Zeigarnik was arrested and sent to a prison camp for ten years.  Bluma's time in Berlin and cafes in Vienna, her important work on memory which was now being celebrated and elaborated outside of Soviet Europe, all this was a liability.  Central European psychology of the 20's with its bourgeois (not to mention, Jewish) flavour could not have been more at odds with Stalinist-Marxist materialism.  She did not speak of it.  She had two small children.  To recall her past was to risk making her children orphans.  When Albert was arrested, family papers were seized, the relics of her past disappeared. 

She was sent away from Moscow to the Urals.   Her grandson, A.V Zeigarnik, wrote a long and loving biographical sketch of his grandmother.  In his telling, her life story in the post-war period becomes a series of ellipses and repressions of memory. 


"After World War II, Bluma began to prepare a dissertation based on the medical studies she had begun in that period. But just as the dissertation was nearing completion, it disappeared. To put it bluntly, while visiting Bluma at her home, one of her coworkers at the psychiatric institute had stolen it. Bluma then promptly destroyed all the drafts. She was afraid that it might be published, and she would then be accused of plagiarism. Today, such a turn of events may seem implausible, even absurd, but fear is sometimes more compelling than clear thinking.

Other aspects of her research were simply not publishable. For example, among the experimental methods used in attempts at restoring a patient’s motor activity, the following was actually tested: A stand-in, dressed in a military uniform, announces to the sick person that he is a commissar. The commissar gives orders to the patient, the fulfillment of which could lead to the restoration (possibly partial) of lost motor functions. Today, no documentary evidence about such experiments has been preserved; nor is there any data about their reproducibility. But one thing is completely clear: In those years, one could find oneself in prison for conducting such experiments, whereas now it is no longer possible to repeat them, at least not in Russia, since there are no longer patients with such a reverent attitude toward commissars or other political figures.

In 1943, when Bluma returned to Moscow with her sons, she found her apartment had been robbed. While they had been living in Kisegach, the authorities had housed in their Moscow apartment an unknown and unpleasant person. For some reason, this person considered everything his own property, with the result that he had used the home library and much of the furniture as firewood for the stove. It is possible that part of the family archive vanished during this time. During this resident’s struggle for warmth, he tossed into the fire, in addition to the writings of scholars who were unfamiliar to him, all the publications of Marx and Engels to be found in the home. (Does there not seem to be something mystical in this unabashed materialism?) The writings by Lenin, however, remained. Bluma had to endure numerous humiliations, but, after the intervention of a military prosecutor, the apartment was returned, and she was then finally able to resume her normal daily life."

In a final triumph of materialist erasure, Bluma's one reflection that has been translated into English about the Berlin period is hidden behind Wiley's paywall.  In 1984 she wrote a memorial for her old teacher Kurt Lewin on the occasion of his death.  For 32$ you can read and print the reminiscences of a pioneer of the study of the human mind, fugitive from fascism and prisoner of Stalin about her old beloved teacher and mentor on the occasion of his death.  She died four years later, to all appearances a loyal daughter of Soviet communism. 

I imagine a ghost, the memory of an unfinished task persisting even after the body that contained it has gone;  a waiter at a Viennese cafe, unable to forget, because she left before he could deliver her order, her odd meal, which he seeks to deliver year after year and which she can never receive; four cups of wine, three pieces of flat bread, like the poor people eat, a roasted egg, some bitter herbs, a shank bone, a bowl of salty water.