On storytelling and memory

When I was officially studying economics at Sydney University in the early 1980s, I was also unofficially sitting in on psychology lectures and reading texts and articles on perception, brain science and social psychology. I have periodically kept up that interest ever since.

I want to share my discovery some years ago about a technique used by candidates and winners of international memory competitions who used stories as a way to correctly remember a sequence of random numbers or playing cards.

The example I first came across was how the winner back then gave each playing card a character or image (for example, I think the chap used “James Bond” as the character for the seven of hearts). As each playing card was revealed to him, he created a sequential story based on the characters or images he associated with each of the 52 cards.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the source of my initial discovery (all my books are at home in Sydney and I am in Canberra today) but when I return home I’ll seek it out and report back. However, a similar example is cited in this article about a chap who has won the US memory competition – the technique is called elaborative encoding.

So association with meaning is clearly important. It reminds me of the story my mother told me about how everyone she knew who was alive when US President John F. Kennedy was shot could remember exactly where they were and what they were doing at the time, irrespective of the years that had passed since. She could not, however, remember what the F stood for in his middle name. Likewise, I can remember exactly where and what I was doing when I heard that John Lennon was shot in 1980 – interestingly the date in Australia at the time was 9th December (8th December in the US) – the birthday of a former school mate of mine.

I am not sure where elaborative encoding sits in the cognitive science profession these days, but I am aware of the importance of meaning and association in my own learning and memory tasks. Some research for me is definitely on the cards…

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2 responses to “On storytelling and memory

  1. Interesting line of conversation Brad- reminded me of the discovery of the woman AJ who has complete recall of everything that happened in her lifetime- now called hyperthymestic syndrome. This is a very annoying but not totally disabling affliction. Scientists are studing her in the hope that she will reveal how memory works which is currently not understood. Although we do know that people can enhance memory in the way you have outlined in you blog. What makes this woman so remarkable is that she uses no tricks to help her remember things and she presents the opportunity to study an individuals who has exceptionally strong abilities related to memory that do not rely on mnemonic devices

  2. Sally,

    Yes, and there are the cases of highly autistic people (the film “Rain Man” highlighting one particular case) and how their memory works.

    The human brain is an amazing thing!

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