Experience and Memory

 How does experience affect memory?

Information is remembered best when it is elaborate, meaningful, and contextual.
— John Medina, Brain Rules, p. 114.

The pathway shown here is a wooden pathway going through the woods. I look at the picture and realize how easy it would be, if we wandered off the path, to get lost. A pathway leads through the dark woodsThe path may not go straight to our destination. It winds back and forth. But if we follow the path we can feel confident that we will eventually  get there.

Are you likely to remember this picture? Not really. Would you remember it better if you actually walked along the path? Certainly. If this was a familiar experience, you might remember if for a few weeks.

You’d remember it much longer if you had never walked through the woods before. You’d remember it longer if something strange happened that day. Perhaps you came around a curve and saw pair of wild turkeys with a dozen or so young. Perhaps you saw a group of deer crossing the path in front of you. Suppose you come upon a woman who has fallen and broken a leg. You have a cellphone and call 911. You stay with her and comfort her until help arrives.

You will remember this experience for a long time. It was a new experience for you. It was a meaningful experience. It engaged your emotions. And because memories are stronger when attached to their context, you will remember the walkway through the wood. You will not be surprised to learn that after such as experience, if you saw this picture, your memories of that day will come flooding into your memory.

Two Unforgettable Lectures

John Medina,  in his book, Brain Rules, describes a lecture he will never forget. Even though you weren’t there, you will remember it longer than you remember a lecture you heard today.

The class was about the history of the cinema. The professor began speaking and paused to remove his sweater. As he continued, he unbuttoned his shirt slowly, one button at a time. The students may not have paid attention but they were watching now.

He unbuttoned the final button and, as he lectured, he removed his shirt… revealing a T-shirt underneath. Then, continuing his lecture, he slowly unzipped his trousers. You know, at this point, that every student was following his every move. They watched as the trousers fell around his feet. There was probably a sigh (perhaps of relief, perhaps of disappointment) when they saw he was wearing what Medina called “gym clothes” underneath. What was the lecture about? And this is important. He wanted them to understand that “some films use physical nudity to express emotional vulnerability.”

He made his point, not just intellectually, but by providing a memorable experience for his students. Many of them were probably worried, worried that their professor would embarrass himself this way. Now it made sense. He used the impression of physical nudity. They felt that he was making himself vulnerable.

Each time these students told a friend about the lecture, they explained the point of the lesson. And, as they did, the point of the lesson was moved from short-term memory to working memory, moving quickly on to long-term memory because of their emotional involvement. Each time they thought of that lecture, the memory returned from long-term memory to working memory. Later it moved  back again, reinforcing and strengthening the memory.

Now, when these students see a movie with nudity, they will remember the classroom where the lecture took place. (the context). They will remember the professor and what he did. (the event). And they will remember that physical nudity expresses emotional vulnerability. They see that movie in the context of that classroom experience.

The second lecture: A lesson I’ll never forget. How could I?

I had one biology teacher I will never forget. Dr. Alan D. Conger was teaching at the University of Florida. He often wore baggy pants, bright Hawaiian shirts and blue suede shoes. He lectured to a large class in a special lecture room.  We never knew what strange things he would pull out of the pockets in those strange baggy pants.

One day he pulled out a couple pop-toys. These were plastic toys for toddlers, perhaps 5-6 inches long. They came in different colors and shapes and could be popped together to form a chain. “Imagine that these are the different genes,” he said.  “Together, they form a chromosome. They are not ON a chromosome. They are the chromosome.” This lecture was not long after the structure of DNA had been discovered and none of us knew anything about genes or chromosomes.  Dr. Conger pulled out one pop-toy after another from a seemingly endless supply in his pockets.

For the next lecture I was sitting down in  front, curious to see if he could top his previous lecture. This time Dr Conger pulled out  a long string of pop-beads.  Children often popped beads together in long strings, forming “pearl”   necklaces. This lecture was on mitosis and meiosis, another topic we knew absolutely nothing about.  Dr. Conger described the huge number of genes on each chromosome. He soon pulled a second string of pop-beads from his pocket and explained how nearly every cell has two copies of each chromosome. He continued to describe mitosis explaining how each chromosome forms a duplicate. Now he was holding 4 strings of pop-beads. The chromosomes separate . He held  2 strings of pop-beads in each hand. The chromosomes move to the sides of the cell.  His hands move apart.  The cell divides. His hands separate further.  Now, each new cell has the normal number of paired chromosomes.

Somewhere in the midst of manipulating the four strings of bead that were moving apart, he decided he needed help. He pointed to me and asked if I would help. Working together,we repeated the demonstration. As he continued on to meiosis, I had no inkling of what was coming. I’d never heard of meiosis. He began with a single pair of plastic chromosomes (representing the many pairs of chromosomes in the cell). He added a second pair of pop-bead chromosomes as the chromosomes duplicated. Now, he handed me one pair of chromosomes. Working together we divided the two cells. Then, without doubling the number of chromosomes, each cell divided again.  I did what he did. Now we each held a single chromosome string in each hand.

You can imagine what came next. My classmates and I had no idea. Dr. Conger explained that this process created the eggs and sperm, cells that had only a single copy of each chromosome. By this time a few students were suspecting what was about to happen. They were sitting on the edges of their seats, waiting and grinning.  Dr. Conger held out one hand with its string of pop-beads.  “Now, if my cell, fertilizes your cell, we created a fertilized egg.”

I finally realized what was happening and began to blush. He was happily holding up our beads, explaining how the baby that would grow from this egg would have the normal number of chromosomes. While a few students were laughing, most applauded. It had been a good performance and,  Dr. Conger had made a difficult process easy to understand, and it was a lecture we will never forget.

This experience is a little different from the one involving Medina’s professor. For the first several years, as in his experience, I read or taught something about chromosomes, I remembered Dr. Conger and his pop-beads, and the basic events in mitosis and meiosis became clear. But, as I’ve gotten older the event and the memory have changed places. I still remember Dr. Conger and his pop-beads. But I’ve forgotten some of the details. Now I find that I use my knowledge of mitosis and meiosis to mentally re-construct the earlier event.

Earlier, the context brought forth the information. Now, the information brings back the original event.

How does this help us learn to remember what we learn in class?

Our personal experiences, often called “autobiographical memory” do not require studying. We remember the Christmas we got the giant dollhouse or the longed-for train set. We remember when a grandparent died or when a new brother was born. It take no special effort on our part..

To remember information from a lecture or textbook, we should make an effort to relate new information to previous information and to our own experience. If you read in psychology about schizophrenia and you have an uncle or neighbor who is schizophrenic, you can’t stop reading. “Yes,” you think, “That’s exactly the way Uncle Oscar is. Now I understand why he acts the way he does.” The student who doesn’t know anyone with schizophrenia, reads with little interest. There are so many different mental illnesses, they start to sound pretty much the same.

What can this second student do. She might learn about your uncle and ask questions about Uncle Oscar.  She might read a book or see a movie about someone who is schizophrenic. She might imagine how she would feel if she or someone in her family had this problem. Eventually this can become part of her experience too.

We can create experiences to improve our memories

 “Retrieval may be best improved by replacing the conditions surrounding the initial encoding,”                                                                                    —Medina, p. 115.

When you go into a certain room, you may remember something that happened there. When you smell apple pie cooking, you might remember your grandmother who made apple pie for you. A baby feels her mother’s touch and smells her mother’s milk and understands that she will be fed. Soldiers who have returned home often hear a loud noise and flash back to their experience on the battlefield.

When I’m in Florida, I can never remember the name of that vine that has taken over in some areas, covering trees, and sometimes an abandoned house. When I return to North Carolina, I see the vine and remember. It’s called Kudzu. A familiar context can bring forth memories.

Imagine that a person is drunk. Someone hands him some money and he hides it in a safe place. The next day, when he is sober, he might not remember where he put the money. But, the next time he is drunk, to the same degree, he is much more likely to remember.

The material you learned when you were in a good mood, you will remember better when you’re in a good mood. Material you learned while sitting on a bench in a rose garden, will actually be easier to recall if you visualize the garden and imagine the smell of the roses.

How do they know this? Researchers actually took a group of volunteers, properly matched and divided into two groups, and went to the beach.  All the volunteers wore wetsuits. Half the group was asked to go into the water until they were in ten feet of water. I imagine they treaded water to stay afloat. The other remained on the beach. Someone read them all a list of random words. After a break, the students were regrouped. Some returned to their original position, others were switched. They were then tested on how many words they remembered.

I was surprised by the results. Those who were tested in the location where they learned the words, remembered a significantly larger number of words than those whose positions had been changed. If those who had changed positions returned to their original positions, they remembered as many words as those who had never changed position.

Medina says, “The quality of the encoding stage — those earliest moments of learning —  is one of the single greatest predictors of later learning success.” p. 114.

A program that I either heard on the radio( NPR) or saw on TV (probably Public Television) suggested two ways to remember what you study. They said that students should ignore the advice to always study in the same place. They suggested that students remember more when they study in different places. As you try to remember a piece of information, visualize the place where you studied that chapter and you are more likely to remember the information.

They described another experiment where they watched how students normally studied information on a large chart.  With a new chart, they suggested that some students  do it the same way, and others try moving around the room or simply moving their feet as they sat. Those who walked around and those who moved their feet remembered more, apparently because they did something different while learning. Students who normal squirm and move their feet, learned more when attempting to keep their feet still.

If this is true, you might use your language flash cards as you walk around. You might study science vocabulary while on a treadmill or stationary bike. You might memorize a poem while rocking gently on a swing. I haven’t read anything that suggests this would help, but it seems to mirror the research on people in the water and on the beach. I suppose, however that you might need to move your feet a little to help you recall this information. Perhaps you can simply visualize what you saw as you walked around or used the treadmill.

So how and where should you study?

I think it is clear that you remember information better and for a longer time if —

1. you understand the information or ideas clearly and could explain it to others.
2. you connect the new ideas to ideas you already understand.
3. you know a variety of example of this information.
4. you know or think seriously about the causes of this event and its results.
5. you can relate it to your own experience, to the experiences of those you know, or to imaginary experience
6. you associate the information with a context that might include the location where you learned it, the mood you were in at the time,and emotions you experienced,  the time of day, who you were with,what you saw and heard and smelled, how you were moving, etc. and attempt to picture yourself in that same context.

Another page related to Relational Memory is  Emotional Memory

The next link is to  Storytelling in Memory

For links to other Ways of Memory

Rote Memory        Mnemonics (memory tricks)    Auditory Memory    Visual Memory

Relational Memory           Scheduled Reviews        Multiple Pathways

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