03 June 2009

Know More #2: Memory and Cognition

So, today I'm spending the day at home working on an essay that's due Friday. It's very thrilling, and because I'm having just so much fun with it, I thought I'd be generous and inflict some of it on you, all in the name of Knowing More %-)

I'm sure most of you are aware that you have different types of memory: short-term and long-term at the very least. You also have two other things: your sensory memory, and your working memory.

To illustrate simply what your sensory memory is up to, pinch your arm. Let go. What happens? Did you notice that for an instant it felt as though your arm was still being pinched? That's your sensory memory at work.

Your working memory is pretty much what it sounds like. It's what you're thinking of and remembering right now. You can hold between 5 and 9 new items in there at once - which is why phone numbers generally fall within this range. You can keep things in your working memory either by elaborative rehearsal - relating the thing to something else, or elaborating on it - or by maintenance rehearsal, which is repeating the thing over and over and over in order to remember it. We've all done this with phone numbers, I'm sure :)

Then there's your long-term memory. Unlike your working memory, your long-term memory has a nearly unlimited capacity. But, also unlike your working memory, it requires a lot of effort and sometimes a significant amount of time to retrieve something from your long-term memory.

And this is where it starts to get interesting. Because sometimes, when you try to retrieve information, there are gaps in it. And sometimes, instead of just bringing the memory to your awareness, gaps and all, your brain fills in the details. It reconstructs. And sometimes, it reconstructs wrongly.

And this is where, believe it or not, this can all apply to writing. But how? you ask. How can all this technical mumbo-jumbo possibly apply to writing?

Well, you see, reconstruction is a pretty cool thing for writing. Because words have power, and they have power over reconstruction. There was a study* done, many years ago, where volunteers were taken into a room and shown a video of two cars colliding. Afterwards, they were asked a series of questions, including this one:

"How fast were the cars going when they _____ into each other?"

Interestingly, the estimates of speed varied quite dramatically depending on what verb was used. 'Smashed' elicited much higher estimates than any other of the words used - bumped, collided, contacted, etc.

And, even more interestingly, one week later those who had been asked the question with the verb 'smashed' nearly all said that they had seen broken glass, even though there hadn't actually been any.

Interesting. Interesting indeed.

So, words have power. We can use this in writing in two ways: first of all we can inflict it on our characters, realising that how they hear about and describe events will effect how they perceive them. And secondly, we can realise that we as writers have tremendous power, and that every word we choose in telling our story evokes a memory in our readers' minds, and that every word we use will impact the final impression they have of our story - and will determine whether or not it lingers long after the book itself is closed.

And I don't know about you - but I want my books to linger.

*Loftus, E. F., and Palmer, J. C. (1974). "Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction: An Example of the Interaction Between Language and Memory." Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour 13: 585-589.


Krispy said...

We went over that study a few times in different psych classes! There's a similar study that had to do with people remembering STOP signs or something when there weren't any, except I think the focus of that study might have been about the questionable reliability of eye-witness testimony. Though still applicable to writing because I think leading questions were involved.

I always thought the case of HM was really interesting, where he basically couldn't form new long-term memory. It's hard to imagine what that would be like.

Inkblot said...

Sounds like an interesting study, Krispy. The way eye-witnesses remember stuff is fascinating - and scary! :o!

Yeah, not being able to form long-term memories would be so difficult. Hmm, maybe a story in that?

Krispy said...

Maybe maybe, but I'm still trying to get my head around it. Haha. It's really weird because for HM, he didn't have long term memory after his surgery and stuff, but he still kind of did. Like he was living in an institution after his surgery because of his condition, but he would have like no long term memory of say the people who worked with him there. At the same time though, he'd be able to get to the bathroom on his own because of familiarity with the area over time, but it wasn't really long-term memory formation because if you asked him where the bathroom was, he wouldn't be able to tell you. Something really odd like that.

And I don't know if that made any sense. :P

Inkblot said...

Wow, that's so weird. Cool, but weird. And I guess not cool for the poor guy who actually experienced it o.O

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