Monday, July 22, 2013

Trying to remember

Yesterday I struggled to remember something I'd intended to mention during a phone conversation.  If I don't write it down ahead of time, it's a hit-or-miss proposition.

Same thing for those great thoughts I might have while I'm driving, or when I awaken at 3 AM.  When I arrive at my destination, or get up at 7, those thoughts have flown the coop.  The science is clear:  Using mnemonic techniques can help us cage those flighty birds.  Even in the 21st century, mnemonics have a place.

In Introductory Psychology, students learn about a method used by the ancient Greeks:  associating things to remember with locations or objects in a consistent sequence.  You might imagine walking around your living room, noting landmarks like a lamp, an end table, a sofa, etc. To remember that you want to attend your niece's trombone recital, you picture a horn sticking out of your lamp.  (The weirder the image, the better.)  For a whole list of things to remember, just add associations to the standard landmarks, in order.

With smartphones and all the rest of our high-tech doo-dads, do we really need mnemonic devices?  Not as much as the ancient Greeks, surely.  But they still come in handy surprisingly often, and the skill is a useful one to develop.

I could summarize some of the extensive data showing that these methods really work.  But instead, I want to focus on why we use them.  And that's--consequences!  I can personally testify how annoyed I get when I think I'll remember something and I don't.  Ouch.  Conversely, when I take the extra time to use a mnemonic technique, how rewarding when it works--and how much more likely I am to use it again.  Even a simple method, like saying out loud what I want to remember, does take extra time and effort.  It's a choice:  a more effortful behavior with the likely consequence of a longer-lasting memory, versus just hoping for the best and (all too often) forgetting.  Those darned delays are an inherent part of these particular choices, exerting their usual drag.  But over time, we can learn to remember--given enough consequences.


  1. Good post, Susan!

    Are you familiar with the book "Moonwalking with Einstein?"

    I had no idea of all the mnemonic devices that were developed by the Greeks and others until I read this book last summer. It's an interesting read -- the author is a journalist who spent a year studying for the world memory competition to see if an "average person" could teach himself to compete on the world level.



  2. I hadn't heard of that book, but what a cool idea! Anders Ericsson (mentioned in my book) is one of a number of researchers who have shown that it's quite possible for ordinary people to learn how to develop extraordinary memories--given the proper techniques and strong enough motivation (consequences!). I assume that the author of Moonwalking succeeded in improving his memory? Indeed, I just peeked online and see that he was wildly successful, wow. Thanks for mentioning this.