Connecting the Dots (Consumer Understanding #10)

Mar 19 2011

As we have seen previously, the basis of new memories are new physical connections in the brain.  The more elaborate the connections, the more meaning they have, and the more specific the context, the stronger and more long lasting is the memory.

Although it’s easy to believe that our memory for the important things in life is accurate, vivid and persistent, the reality is a little more uncomfortable.  Even the memory of key events in our lives is subject to change over time, as we make new connections which are linked to existing experiences.  The retrieval of memories, triggered by any event, leads to a new interpretation in the light of present circumstances, leading to subtle changes when those memories are placed back into our mental filing systems.  Over time, this can lead to a very different memory of an event than the original experience.  And we know that some memories simply cannot be accurate.  For example, when we remember seeing ourselves running through fields or playing with friends - out of body experiences are real and important phenomena, but the memories of them are a fiction of our mind!

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

The seven sins of memory

Daniel Schacter names seven sins of memory in his book of the same title, each of them common to all of us.

The first is the sin of transience, the gradual decline of a specific memory over time (we can all remember more recent events better than those further in the past).  The second is the sin of absent-mindedness, such as forgetting appointments and misplacing keys, which happens when our attention is not focused enough at the moment of remembering something.  The third sin is blocking, which happens when different memories interfere with each other (such as the ‘tip of the tongue’ moment) so that we recall something we are not looking for.  This is often caused when we use the wrong context or prime to trigger the memory, which we will discuss in the last two articles in the series.

The fourth sin is misattribution, a sin of commission rather than omission, when we recall the right piece of information but the wrong source, which is a common problem in criminal investigations when witnesses remember descriptions and details of the crime which they have seen after the event but alter the memory of the event itself.  The fifth sin is suggestibility, which is very similar to misattribution, and is the effect of subtle (and sometimes subliminal) influences on aspects of a memory caused by the suggestions of others. The sixth sin is bias, where our current feelings and perceptions distorts our interpretation of past events, especially when they fit our current emotional state.

The final sin is the sin of persistence, when we cannot stop recalling information which is disturbing and we would prefer to forget (because of its emotional resonance).  This can have powerful psychological effects when persistent and linked to highly traumatic events.

Meaning makes memory

Work in advertising suggests that these sins are very important for the impact of advertising, and they provide important lessons (consistent with the way that our memory circuits work):

  • messages work better when integrated with previous understanding
  • visual messages are far more powerful than verbal ones
  • consistency and repetition increase recall significantly

Memory depends both on what happened, and on how we make sense of what happened.  When we remember things we extract the ‘meaning’ of what we perceive rather than the specific details – after all, our brains make memory, like all functions, as efficient as it can.  This is important, as memories are held in your brain at the places where the information is encoded (for example in the different sensory areas of the brain), which can be in many places at once depending on the complexity of the information.  In fact the more places the better, especially when the individual pieces are consistent and linked to a strong emotion.

The magic number seven (again)

There is, of course, more to memory than this, and an important broad distinction is between short term memories (working memory) which are recorded acoustically (a series of pieces of information in time), and long term memory which is recorded semantically (by association to other relevant experiences or information).  Our short term working memory is limited, arguably to about seven (7) ‘chunks’ of information according to one of the most quoted papers in psychology written by George Miller.

Short term memory is typically conscious, but much of long term memory is unconscious.  For example if I ask you to remember a phone number, then you are consciously aware of the information (which is held in your short term memory).  If I ask you how you drive your car, this is a learned behaviour where you repeat a sequence of tasks, but not something you have conscious access to (this is called a ‘procedural’ memory).

Contextualising memory

Part of our memory of any experience is the context (which is formed of many of the related sensory impressions and emotional cues).  Amazingly, but unsurprisingly when you consider it, we recall information much better when we are in the same place as the original experience.

In one very original experiment, it was proved that quality of memory was strongly correlated with place and situation.  A group of deep-sea divers were given a set of words to remember in different places.  Those who were under water when told the words, remembered 15% more of the words when asked to recall them underwater, and likewise for those divers who were sat on the beach.

Elaborate, meaning, context

Marketing and market research rely heavily on the memories of those we engage, and we need to understand the limitations of memory in order to have our advertising remembered and our questions answered (more) accurately.

The three key insights of human memory are:

  1. The more elaborate the experience (ie the more senses are engaged), the stronger the memory
  2. The greater the personal meaning of the event, the longer the memory
  3. The more relevant the context of the event, the greater the likelihood of recall

These are also great rules for sharing information in presentations or learning situations.  Engage as many senses as possible, make ideas meaningful, and contextualise information.

And the key to longer term memory?  Is repeat, repeat, repeat (at regular intervals)!  ‘Practice makes perfect.’


The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers by Daniel Schacter (2002)

Memory by Alan Baddeley, Michael Eysenck & Michael Anderson (2009)

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer (2011)

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