Memory: Why It’s Easier To Remember Concrete Rather Than Abstract Information

23 Mar 2016

Memory: Why It’s Easier To Remember Concrete Rather Than Abstract Information

Some things seem to stay in your memory forever

memory images

Yet others are forgotten moments later

Whether or not something remains in your memory may depend upon how many of your senses you use to store the information.

According to his boss, George Turklebaum was always “the first guy in to work each morning and the last to leave each night.” Obviously a dedicated proof-reader at the New York firm, he’d been there, working hard, for 30 years and, apparently, “George was always absorbed in his work and kept much to himself.”

In this particular week no-one in his office was aware that George had been a lot quieter than usual – and not particularly active.

His co-workers didn’t notice that George had worn the same blue checked shirt, navy trousers and grey jacket every day for a week. No one was sufficiently aware that he hadn’t taken any breaks; no lunch breaks, tea breaks or even a bathroom break. You’d think someone might have spoken to George during that week, checked to see how he was doing. You’d think someone would have become aware that there was something more than a little strange about George…

It’s an intriguing story

I began this article with it because we often find it easier to remember stories. Stories help our memory, especially if the story is funny, absurd or dramatic in some way.

When we read a story or listen to a story, we’re experts at conjuring up images, sounds and feelings that correspond to the story. We create our memory as we go. Read the beginning of George Turklebaum’s story again and notice what images, sounds and feelings you’re aware of.

Sometimes stories also evoke tastes or smells and we often have some internal commentary going on.

Everything we experience with our senses is stored in the appropriate part of the brain and when we re-member (put the memory back together), the information comes from those different storage areas in the brain, to re-present the original memory.

When there’s an element of curiosity to the story we become intrigued

Curiosity and intrigue both have a positive impact on our ability to remember information.

However, if we’re reading information such as facts, figures or concepts it’s not so easy to engage our visual, auditory and kinesthetic senses and therefore the information can be more difficult to store in our memory – and more difficult to recall. For instance, notice what happens if you read; ‘trust and cooperation are important.’ Does this sentence evoke any of your senses? Trust and cooperation are intangible and therefore harder to conceive in your mind using your senses.

When people attend a live training course, they often remember information they’ve learnt because of the interaction with other course members, the stories that are told and the practice they experience. These aspects make the learning more concrete because they directly engage most, if not all the senses.

The key to learning bland, non-emotional or intangible information is to connect it to a mnemonic. A mnemonic is any learning technique that aids retention. It associates information with something more meaningful, which in turn, enables the brain to remember it more easily.

You might recognise these mnemonics:

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain. (The first letter of each word represents the colour of the rainbow, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet and follows the order of colours in the rainbow, or visual spectrum).

You may remember learning the sentence, ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour,’ as a way to remember the notes represented by the lines on the treble clef stave (bottom to top): (E, G, B, D, F). You can find out more about mnemonics here.

Being attentive to what it is you want to learn and how you use your senses to do that, might be the most important first step to enhancing your memory.

George’s busy co-workers were not very attentive to George at all

It took the cleaner who came in on Saturday to question why George was working on the weekend. They found that George was, in fact, dead. A post mortem revealed that he’d died the previous Monday from a heart attack while proofreading manuscripts of medical textbooks.

And the moral of the story?

There might be two:

1) Make lots of noise and don’t work too hard — because no-one notices anyway!

2) Take live courses if you want to imbed the information 🙂

PS. You’ll probably be pleased to know that the story of George Turklebaum is not true.