Wednesday, April 25, 2012

3-Second Memory: Or Looking Past Assumptions

It's said that goldfish (and other fish, even) have a 3-second memory. That their brains are too small to process much of anything. That's why they can live in bowls and not get bored—too stupid! That's why you don't have to care about them too much, because they can't really remember you anyway.

Well, guess what? That's not true.

No one really knows where the myth comes from. Some think it was created so people didn't feel as bad when their fish died (Goldfish, when properly cared for, can actually live 5-10 years.). Or maybe by pet store owners who wanted to sell "easy pets." But wherever it came from, it's a complete lie.

Goldfish actually have good memories. They can recognize their owners, especially the one who feeds them. Those that are blind can even recognize their owner's voice. They can be trained to press levers for food. And they have an excellent sense of time, being able to anticipate their usual feeding times and act accordingly.

I have been keeping goldfish since the beginning of the year (which has turned into research for a book, of course), and I can attest to this already. Our fish recognizes us. I'm not kidding. I can see him on the kitchen counter from my desk, and when he's alone in the kitchen he swims and rests and does whatever. But the second I come into the kitchen? He's right at the glass saying hi to me (and probably hoping for a treat). He's even gotten so comfortable with me that I could touch him if I wanted, and he'll follow my finger along the glass all the way around the tank. He doesn't do that with strangers.

Now, I'm not saying goldfish are geniuses or anything, just that they are capable of far more than people give them credit for. Fish in general get a bad wrap for being dumb or boring pets, when in reality aquarium keeping is as complex and interesting as the fish themselves. Before my own foray into the hobby, I definitely had tons of misconceptions.

This whole fish-keeping thing, oddly enough, has made me think a lot about the way I view other people. It's so easy to put humans in neat little boxes, just like we do fish. It's easy to assume they are a certain way, instead of digging deeper to find that the truth is far more complex. What is it John Green always says? "The truth resists simplicity." I think it's something like that, and it's very true. Groups of people. Individuals. They resist simplicity, no matter how much we want to make it simple.

It's easy to take a person you know online, for example, and assume that what you see is how they are. It's easy to assume a famous person is how the tabloids portray them. And it's even easy to assume that an entire group of people that is "different from you" possess all the same traits.

And that's just not true, just like it's not true that goldfish are in a perpetual state of "Uh, where am I?". Digging deeper always reveals more, whether it's fish or people.


  1. So true, so true!! Great analogy with the fish. :D It's so easy to think in a "group not like me" mindset but I think its worth taking time time to set aside your misconceptions and really get to know people. Everyone has a story.

  2. This is a great post, Natalie, on many levels.

    The fish thing, I am amazed at how much we learn about supposedly 'dumb' animals all the time. We find animals being far more complex than we give them credit for, capable of learning, using tools, communicating in ways we never thought of. It's exciting, and humbling, too.

    As for people - I know I try to project enough through my blog and comments and forum posts as possible so that "online me" is as close as possible to "real me", but I'm sure I do some filtering of my own. At the same time, you and anyone else filter me, too, and develop ideas about what I'm like that way. I only hope that, should I ever meet any of my online friends in the real world, I don't disappoint. It's always good to remember, though, that what we see portrayed through media, etc., is not always reality.

  3. This is so neat, and makes me want to get fish....thank you for the larger "don't judge a book by its cover" concept, but also for bringing empathy to an animal that doesn't often get any!

  4. I grew up with a huge pond (75' x 20') pond that had/has both common goldfish and koi. Not only do they recognize voice and face of people, they recognize their scents.

    Even though now I rarely visit my parent's house, the moment I stick my hand in the water, all the fish will come over and want to be petted. Fish are actually quite affectionate and like being handled.

    Common feeder goldfish can also grow up to about a foot long.

    Fish are awesome :)

  5. LOL, I have a 6" aquatic turtle in a 110 gallon tank. Yes, she is a lucky turtle (especially given that we found her in a sack of crawfish. She'd been in a walk-in cooler for DAYS!), but she doesn't always eat her feeder fish right away. So we decided to get some others that were prettier than your standard rosy-red minnow, but still good eating for Algae (my turtle).

    Now we have about a dozen sunset platys (breeding!) in there, a big gourami, some zebras and little catfish, plus some Chinese algae eaters. The top feeders swarm on me when I turn on the lights in the morning because they want their food. They know what time it is!

    I have a friend with koi who says hers are very smart. They know the difference between the blue bag of food, which they like, and the red bag of food, which they will eat, but they don't go nuts over it like the other bag.

    All fish aside, it's easy to succumb to the desire to judge people based on our own preconceived notions. But it's like judging a book by a cover, or flat-out prejudice, to assume you know someone based on so little information. Heh, if someone was to judge me based on my blog posts, they'd probably think I was a really nice person. If they only knew. ;)

  6. I had a 20 cent goldfish for 8 years, and yes--he would let me pet him, he'd get excited when I talked to him, he knew feeding time, etc. When that fish died, I bawled for several hours. I've never had another fish since. Max just broke the mold... :) AND he survived out of water for 2 days after the tornado that hit our house. We found him in a pile of gravel, still alive!

  7. I've never had fish myself for pets. It does seem that so many people automatically think of an animal as slow witted without really taking the time to prove so objectively...