The Persistence of Memory ~Salvador Dali
The Persistence of Memory ~Salvador Dali

Last week I said that it was much easier to remember complex information that is part of an immersive experience that triggers an emotional response than it is to recall disconnected info bits.

And none of you said I was wrong.

Shame on you.

I’m thinking that I should get a job as a Consultant because my blathering went uncontested. Oh, wait. I am. Never mind.

Since none of you were kind enough to challenge me, let me propose a contrarian viewpoint. So here I am fighting with myself….

If we supposedly have a difficult time recalling facts and data, why is it that we can memorize a prodigious amount of trivial information with almost no effort? For example, did you know the Komodo dragon is the world’s largest living lizard? How is it that I happen to know that unusual and possibly useless fact? In part, it’s because I was once a biology teacher and had an arsenal of curious factoids at my disposal. In actuality, I knew this fact long before I became a biology major. When I was a youngster I heard this Bob and Ray skit. For obvious reasons every time I think of Komodo dragons, the fact that they are the world’s largest living lizard pops into my head. My guess is that it will stick with you now that you have heard Bob and Ray.

Komodo Dragon From cincinnatizoo.org

One explanation for why we remember random bits of trivia relates to Piaget’s stages of development. When we are younger we respond very well to rote memory and are able to compile a staggering amount of information and keep it in our heads. This includes things like the multiplication tables, spelling rules, the names of the 50 states and their capitals, and lyrics to countless songs. Our young minds are like sponges soaking up prodigious amounts of information, but somewhere during our later elementary years, our minds begin to change and we lose the ability to quickly assimilate knowledge through rote memory. Which is why you no longer effortlessly memorize lyrics to songs in the 2010’s – not because the music really stinks compared to the 80’s.

However, this does not account for information that sticks in our head quickly and easily after we become older. Why is it that fantasy football fanatics can memorize page after page of current player statistics with seemingly miniscule effort? And for those of us with no interest in fantasy football or baseball statistics, we feel like dunderheads because we don’t know even the most basic information. Nor does there seem to be any way for us to duplicate their feats, even if we had access to the same information sources. Are these people naturally smarter than we are? Of course not. They’re playing fantasy football, after all.

Clearly, there is more to memorization than just access to information and “natural ability.” We have already seen that it is much easier to recall information that is linked to already existing information. If a person knows the engine size and horsepower output for every Corvette model year since 1966, it is a relatively easy thing to add the stats for the 2016 model because it fits neatly within the context of already existing information. But this begs the question of why is there 50 years of Corvette engine history inside someone’s head in the first place? That’s the hard question with the easy answer – they have an interest in it. So why is that such a hard question if it has such an easy answer? Because the hard part of the question is, “Why do they have an interest in it?”

Why do I remember the fact that the Komodo dragon is the world’s largest living lizard? Was it because I’ve always been interested in animal facts, leading to my eventual college major of biology? Perhaps. Was it because I like Bob & Ray and listened to them whenever I got a chance? Maybe. Was it because I laughed myself silly listening to their spoof of clueless newscasters (which has contributed to my view of press pundits ever since)? Could be.  Undoubtedly, there are even more reasons not immediately apparent even to me. Simply put, there were multiple interconnected threads that linked a bit of trivial information through an emotional experience that permanently etched itself into my brain. It is almost impossible to understand why any particular info bit is of interest to us.

I discovered that this pattern holds across almost everything I know. When playing Trivial Pursuit I noticed that every time I got an answer correct and people asked, “How could you possibly know that?” I was able to tell a story of how that particular info bit got lodged in my brain. It was sort of like a real-life Slumdog Millionaire experience – but without the cash winnings, of course. I discovered that information doesn’t exist on its own in our brains; it is connected and interconnected to experiences that we may or may not remember, all of which contribute to its meaning and significance.

To summarize so far:

  • We routinely memorize vast quantities of trivial information
  • We tend to easily learn information that is of interest to us
  • The reason the information is of interest to us is not readily apparent
  • And I still forget why I walked into the room sometimes – oh, wait. That was last week.

This naturally leads us to question how this can be of any use to us as instructional designers, but I suspect you already know the answer. Before we get to it, though, let’s look at a contrary example – stuff I wish people didn’t know.

As a teacher, I had to work hard to teach students the phases of mitosis and the chemical formula for photosynthesis, but it was nothing compared to how hard I had to work every year to convince people that blood in veins is not blue. For whatever reason, the vast majority of kids would come into class and tell me that they “knew” venous blood was blue because that’s what they’ve always been taught. They would argue vehemently that this was true – even though they have never seen blue blood. When I quizzed them about this, they said that once the blood was exposed to oxygen it turned red and that’s why we never see the blue blood. So naturally, I was intrigued by how quickly and pervasively these things spread when truth appeared to travel at a glacial pace. Why is it that I struggled so hard to impart easily recalled information when there were so many false facts they were able to recall quickly and easily?

I concluded that the reason false facts were so persistent is because they invoked an emotional response that provided a lasting experience which stimulated recall. When students are confronted with diagrams of the human circulatory system that show arteries as red and veins as blue, this creates a cognitive disconnect, because intuition leads them to assume all blood vessels are red. Their teacher points out that if they look at veins under their skin, they appear blue. Suddenly, what was originally counterintuitive now makes complete sense and they have an “Ah, ha!” moment. The emotional epiphany makes a lasting impression. And thus a non-existent fact is permanently etched in their brains.

My training strategy from then on was to create emotional epiphanies every day in hopes that some of it might stick. As a biology teacher, this was fairly easy since the entire field is full of fun facts and freaky creatures. To this day, my students remember facts about the loa loa worm and Komodo dragon, among others.

Since I no longer teach biology professionally, I have translated this approach to instructional design by including as many shocking stories or astounding facts as I can. We call them case studies and scenario based learning, but the pedagogical model is the same – create an engaging experience that evokes an emotional response and recall will be enhanced. We have a number of options at our disposal to accomplish this:

And plenty more. Let’s do our best to shock, surprise, and engage in order to inform.

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