Sunday, April 3

How to Tackle the Limits of Human Memory

I've been working on an autobiographical piece of writing lately, and of course, the limits of memory are a key barrier.  The piece is based on some of my experiences at age six, and an intriguing task I tried to help trigger the memory - many thanks to my OU course tutor for this one - was to draw a map of my childhood home.  As soon as I started sketching out the rooms, furniture etc, memories started flooding back.

This is what psychologists call using a cue to trigger a memory.  When memory is described, there tends to be a lot of emphasis on how memories are stored - where in the brain?  How much can be held?  How long for?  However, without successful retrieval, encoding and storage count for very little.
The problem is that retrieval of information from a busy, cluttered memory is not always easy.  The context in which we encode things can play a role in how easy it is to remember them, with items being harder to retrieve or recognize in an unfamiliar setting (most people have experienced this with faces, e.g. seeing a neighbour when abroad on holiday).  Similarly, even when we really should know a word or name, and we know that we know it, sometimes it doesn't quite come, at least not straight away.  The concept of something being on the 'tip of your tongue' goes across cultures and has been around for hundreds of years.

It is relatively easy to invoke the tip of the tongue (TOT) phenomenon - giving a person a list of 10 definitions of rare words will usually bring about the experience at least once.  Brown & McNeill (1966) researched the phenomenon, stating that a participant "would appear to be in mild torment, something like on the brink of a sneeze, and if he found the word his relief was considerable".  The researchers also found that giving a cue such as the first letter of a word was often enough to 'trigger' the memory.  TOT is thought to occur roughly twice a week in most adults (Schacter, 2001) - though perhaps more for writers!

I was relatively lucky in retrieving my childhood memories - I moved house at age six, so I can be sure that memories dredged up using the house map technique as a cue are uncontaminated by later experiences.  Still, I think that it could probably be put to use in other contexts too - a friend's house, a school classroom etc.

Brown, R., & McNeill, D. (1966). The "tip-of-the-tongue" phenomenon. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5, 325-337.
Schacter, D. L. (2001). The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

1 comment:

  1. I have come across good pen-and-paper demos of the context specificity effect, but if anyone know of an online version, please let me know.