Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The One Best Way to Remember Anything

As explained in my memory-improvement book, "Memory Power 101," the most powerful way to remember something is to construct a mental-image representation. All the memory books I have read make the same point. The professional memorizers, "memory athletes" who can memory the sequence of four shuffled decks of cards in five minutes, all use some form of mental imaging that converts each card into a mental-picture representation.

Now a recent experiment documents the power of mental images in a study involving seven experiments that compared memory accuracy with whether or not a drawing was made. College-student volunteers were asked to memorize a list of words, each of which was chosen to be easily drawn. Words were presented one at a time on a video monitor and students were randomly prompted to write the name of the object or make a drawing of it. Each word presentation was timed and a warning buzzer indicated it was time to stop and get ready for the next word display. At the end of the list, a two-minute filler task was presented wherein each student classified 60 sound tones, selected at random, in terms of whether the frequency was low, medium, or high. Then a surprise test was given wherein students were asked to verbally recall in one minute as many words as they could, in any order, whether written or drawn.

In the first two experiments students remembered about twice as many when a drawing representation had been made than when just the word had been written. Three other experiments demonstrated that drawing was more effective because the encoding was deeper. For example, one experiment was conducted like the first two, but included a third condition in which the subjects were to write a list of the physical characteristics of the word (for example, for apple, one might say red, round, tasty, chewy, etc.). This presumably provides a deeper level of encoding than just writing or
drawing the word. Results revealed that drawing was still more effective than either writing a list of attributes or writing the word.

Another highly important experiment was conducted that compared drawing and writing with just making a mental image without drawing it. Again, drawing produced the best results, although more words were remembered when mentally imaged than when written.

A follow-on experiment substituted an actual picture of the word instead of requiring the student to actively imagine an image. Here again, best results occurred with drawing, with seeing pictures being more effective than writing the word.

In a sixth experiment, drawing was still superior to writing even if the list of words was made longer or if the encoding time was reduced. In the last experiment, drawing was still beneficial in a way that could not be explained solely by the fact that drawings are more distinctive than writing a word.
The benefits of drawing were seen within and across individuals and across different conditions. The researchers concluded that drawing improves memory by encouraging a seamless integration of semantic, visual, and motor aspects of a memory trace. That makes sense to me.

The processes involved here that account for better memory are 1) elaborating the item to be remembered, 2) making a mental image of it or an alias for it, 3) the motor act of drawing the image, and 4) the reinforcing feedback of thinking about the drawing.

The implications of studies like this have enormous practical application for everyday needs to remember. The principle is that whenever you have something you need to remember, make a mental-image representation of it and then draw it. For example, if you have to remember somebody named "Mike" make a mental image of the person speaking into a microphone (mike). Then roughly draw Mike's main facial features alongside a microphone. There are all sorts of formal schemes for making mental images, even for numbers, as explained in my book. This present study indicates that the making of a mental image is powerfully reinforced when you try to draw it.

To some extent, this memory principle is used in elementary school, where drawing is a huge part of the curriculum. As students get older, teachers abandon drawing and usually so do the students. Perhaps educators need to revisit the idea that drawing has educational value at all grade levels.


Kluger, Jeffrey, (2016) Here's the memory trick that science says works. Time, April 22. http://time.com/4304589/memory-picture-draw/

Wammes, Jeffrey D. et al. (2016. The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 69 (9), 1752-1776. DOI:10.1080/17470218.2015.1094494


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