Monday Mornings with Madison

Mind Matters – Part 1

Part 1:  Memory Reducers and Memory Killers

Professionals are always looking to have an edge over their competitors.  Most people want to be successful, and bring their “A Game” to every endeavor.   A big part of performance in any career is mental capacity, acuity, and agility.  Memory plays a big part in that.  However, until the last few decades, scientists and doctors understood very little about how memory works, where memories are stored, and what might improve or harm memory.  But in the last 50 years, science has made great strides in understanding memory and the human brain.

Indeed, memory is one of the purposes of the brain, and it is described as the ability to protect acquired information consciously and connect it with the past.  Having a good memory is a crucial ability in everyone’s life.  History is peppered with scholars and leaders whose memories were so remarkable that they never forgot any information they learned in the past.  Simonides of Ceos who lived 5th century BC was able to keep in his memory thousands of poems. Cicero was known for his ability to remember names.  Ferdinand Marcos, the former Philippine dictator, claimed to have memorized complicated texts in one glance. He could recite the Philippine Constitution forward and backward. He also passed the Bar Exam in 1939 with an almost perfect score at 98%. When his score was contested and he was forced to retake an oral Bar Examination, he got a perfect score.

Everyone wishes they had such a good memory. However, many people complain about forgetfulness and weakness of memory.  Nowadays, forgetfulness has become a very common problem among both young and older people. There are many variables that can impact memory.  Let’s dub them memory killers.  Here are just a few.

Factors that Damage Memory

Doctors classify memories as either:

  • Immediate memories, such as sounds, which are only stored for a few seconds.
  • Short-term or recent memories, such as telephone numbers, which stay in your memory for 30 seconds. The brain can store about seven chunks of short-term information at any time.
  • Long-term or remote memories – more permanent memories, which have been reinforced because you’ve repeatedly gone over them in your mind.

While a number of people have claimed to have eidetic (photographic) memory, only two people have been tested and actually documented as having a memory that is truly photographic. Most people showing amazing memory abilities use mnemonic strategies. This includes all winners of the annual World Memory Championships and most of the known scientific cases of excellent memories. Regardless, there are a number of individuals with extraordinary memory who have been labeled eidetikers.  But those people are few and far between.  Most people have better or worse short or long-term memory because of the many variables that impact memory.

There are various elements that lead to forgetfulness and poor memory.  These factors can result in serious memory problems:

  1. Carelessness
  2. Not knowing the principles of memorization
  3. Not using the information
  4. Stress
  5. Lack of sleep
  6. Trauma such as a serious brain injury
  7. Loss of a loved one
  8. Long-term alcohol or drug misuse

There also other less common illnesses and diseases that can impact memory.

  1. An underactive thyroid, which means the thyroid gland (found in the neck) does not produce enough hormones
  2. Certain types of medication, such as sedatives and some treatments for Parkinson’s disease
  3. Bleeding in the brain, known as a subarachnoid hemorrhage
  4. Vitamin B1 or Thyamine deficiency
  5. Problems with blood flow to part of the brain, which causes sudden episodes of memory loss

Then there are odd, quirky ways in how the brain itself works which impacts memory.

  1. Doorways

If that sounds absurd, it’s not.  Case in point.  You walk into a room, look around, confused. You came in to get something, but what? You don’t remember. That has happened to everyone at one point or another.  It seems like the mere act of walking from the living room into the kitchen wiped out all memory.

Scientists at the University of Notre Dame have figured out a very weird reason why.  The human brain uses a very similar directory system to that of your computer. Only instead of neat folders labeled “Work,” “Documents,” “Nonsense,” etc., the human brain tends to compartmentalize by physical location. Information readily accessible in one room becomes a lot harder to access when going to another one. The moment a doorway is crossed, the brain receives a signal of being in a new environment. Nothing that happened in the previous one matters, so it is eliminated.  This was discovered by having students examine a box containing objects such as red cubes and blue spheres. Then, the students tried to remember what those objects were after either walking into another room or just walking that same distance without crossing any doorways. The results were so dramatic that researchers proceeded to redub doorways “event erasers.”

The effect of doorways is so strong that a person need not physically move through a doorway to kill memory.  In another experiment, the researchers had people sit at a computer and do the same test, where the new “room” was just an animation on the screen. The effect was exactly the same — every time their avatar crossed a virtual doorway, their ability to recall objects was forgotten.  There are ways to circumvent the doorway effect.  Saying things aloud as one passes the doorway can apparently thwart the effect.  Designing offices with large, open areas that don’t have actual doorways also eliminates the doorway effect.

15.  Boring / Common Fonts

Big textbook publishers try everything they can to keep students’ attention.   They try everything from bolding to italicizing to underlining important terms and sentences like there is no tomorrow.  Yet, students hardly learn anything from the book.  Alternatively, a review of any restaurant ad shows typographical nightmares. They mix four or five different fonts, and interrupt one kind of font with another in mid-sentence … Other times, the text is just a jumbled mess.  Actually, restaurant owners seem to know what textbook publishers don’t: When information is provided in a weird, difficult-to-read font, you are more likely to remember it. Unless really interested in the subject matter, the brain has a tendency to lump anything written in tedious Times New Roman or dull Courier with the hundreds of miles of writing read in those same, sane, boring fonts. But throw in some Jokerman or Narkism, and all of a sudden the information begins to pop.

There is science to back this up.  Researchers at Princeton and Indiana University had one group of people read stories in 16-point Arial and others in the much more difficult to process 12-point Comic Sans MA and 12-point Bodoni MT. The people given the difficult-to-read fonts retained the information better. This was confirmed by a bigger experiment where kids who got their textbooks replaced with doppelgangers with funky fonts retained the material better and got higher test grades. The effect was most noticeable in physics, probably because it was more difficult.  The process behind that phenomenon is simple: When the brain works harder at decoding the font, it also spends more time and effort in figuring out just what is being read and therefore tends to hang on to the information better.  Businesses can help employees learn new skills or safety practices by putting the information in crazy fonts.

There are many other such quirky things that impact memory.  Voices.  Faces. And much more.  Tune in next week as we look at factors that help to enhance memory.  Don’t forget.

Quote of the Week

“Every man’s memory is his private literature.” Aldous Huxley

© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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