What Mangos and Rollerblades Can Tell Us About Memory
Why do some people, or movies, or ideas stick in our head and others don’t? Why are some facts or meals or commercials just unforgettable and others not? Turns out there are some pretty cool answers to those questions that can give us some insight into ourselves and help us craft a memorable message for others.
Essentially, making information memorable is about transforming it into a format our brains were built to retain. To do that, you need to know a little about…
How Your Brain Works
My favorite axiom of brain science is neurons that fire together, wire together.
Whenever two neurons are firing at the same time, synapses form between them. These connections lay down new memories. When you first tried a mango, your brain associated neurons that recognized mangos with neurons that registered sweetness. That’s how memories are formed. And mango addictions.
New experiences form new connections and each experience primes us for the next. We can then look for patterns and develop a model of the world based on those patterns. We’re also good at filtering out sensory input to hone in on the important stuff. This helps us retain only the information we need to make judgements and predictions. We have a limited processing capacity so we’re constantly filtering.
You can udnesratnd tihs snetcnee bacesue you can regocnize the patetrn and ingroe the tpyos.
If you know a lot about a topic (that is, if you have a strong existing network of neurons around that subject), you’re better equipped to incorporate new knowledge into your understanding. The more connections an idea has to things that we already know, the more ways for those concepts to be retrieved and those memories to be triggered.
That’s why if we’re learning something new, in a field we’re wholly unfamiliar with, it’s harder to retain simple concepts. But as we acquire a basic understanding in that field, our rate of retention increases.
Our brains also respond to novelty. When something breaks the pattern, we notice it. It’s called the von Restorff effect, as if we needed proof. But notice that the reason something unfamiliar is more memorable is because we pay more attention to it in the first place. When I was running in the park last weekend, I saw only one person rollerblading. And I really noticed that person. I must have seen hundreds of runners and cyclists but only a single rollerblader and that brave soul is the one I’ll remember.
We’re also better able to remember things if we break them up into parts, a method called chunking. So if you have to recall the number 698356280, you’d better break it up into 698—356—280.
And then there’s patternicity. This is how we processes information by connecting events in a sequential order even if there is no causal connection between those events. When given any information, people want to fill in the blanks. We tend to remember the broad overview rather than details and we have trouble separating our own extrapolations from what we were actually presented.
If we’re going to hold on to a memory beyond a short-term basis though, it still needs to go through consolidation. This is where working memories are processed and stored as long-term memories. Anyone who’s seen Inside Out knows this process well.
Generally, storytelling is the best way to make information memorable because stories combine many useful methods to help get past our cognitive barriers.
- They describe cause and effect, utilizing patternicty.
- They help us make associations and remember things spatially, creating a scene in our mind. This allows us to more easily play the story back.
- They elicit emotion. This is a big one. If a story is relevant to us, if it evokes a response, if it really hits a nerve, we will not only remember it, we will absorb it as if we were there.
A story is more than just a list of occurrences or a recipe. It provides a backdrop to help create drama, eliciting an emotional connection with characters, conflict, and resolution. That amplifies contrasting, unexpected, or surprising elements of a story. We love twists and boy do we remember them.
Online, the ability to create interactive experiences is a great tool for crafting stories because it encourages active processing. This means the user is somehow participating in how a story is revealed to them, increasing their depth of engagement. If someone is asked to predict what will happen—rather than just watch an animation of it—they’ll retain it better because a deeper part of their brain is being engaged.
No matter if a story is being told with words on a page or an interactive on a screen, if it can pull the viewer in, connect with what they know, and engage their brain, it will be remembered.