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... but is it memorable?


So your product, training, documentation, presentation, blog, whatever is interesting, but is it memorable? Do you want it to be?

Where were you when you heard the news about 9/11? Chances are, you remember. What did you eat for dinner last Tuesday? Chances are, you do NOT remember (unless dinner involved a hot date, your birthday, a fist fight with the waiter, or some other emotionally-charged event). Just as emotions can tell the brain that something is worth attention, emotions also tell the brain that something is worth recording.

According to neurobiologist (and Nobel prize winner for his work on memory) Eric Kandel, a "switch must be thrown" to convert a memory from short-term to long-term storage. But a neurochemical smackdown is happening inside your brain--two competing agents fighting for control of that switch. In one corner we have CREB-1, the essential component for throwing the switch that starts converting short-term memories to long-term storage. But in the other corner, we have CREB-2--CREB-1's arch rival. CREB-1's big goal in life is to throw the switch, but CREB-2 guards the switch saying, "Not so fast. If you want to throw that switch you'll have to get past me." CREB-2 is the gatekeeper!

If they gave you a drug that suppressed CREB-2, you'd remember everything the first time. While I would have killed for this the night before college exams, those for whom CREB-2 doesn't do its job are not having a good time. Think of all the things you're exposed to each moment, and imagine how awful it would if you remembered them all...

[Disclaimer: I'm playing fast and loose with the metaphors and science here]

If CREB-2 inhibits memory, then how do you inhibit CREB-2? How do you stop it from protecting the switch? There's the slow, painful (or at least boring) way we all used in college to get through some of our exams. We just kept rereading the same damn chapter over and over. With enough time and repetition, just about anything can be saved to long-term memory.

But there's a more efficient way--EMOTIONS. Scientists have confirmed (and you know it from experience) that emotions play a major role in memory. And it's thought that the chemicals of emotion must be telling CREB-2 to back off and let CREB-1 do it's work.

Just as the brain pays attention to that which it feels, the brain remembers that which it feels. If you can help your users trick their brains into thinking that something is important enough to store, you can help your users learn more quickly. Learning = getting past the suck threshold faster. And learning also means gaining the kind of skill and expertise that can meet the challenges needed to reach the flow state. And that's where you hit the passion threshold.

Remember--your users don't have to be passionate about your product in order to be passionate users. Sometimes--often--users are passionate about what they do with your product. And it's that thing they do where you can help them kick ass. Users who "kick ass" are those who get good enough to reach a state of "optimal experience" doing whatever it is you're helping them do (through your product, service, support, learning, whatever). And that can happen with almost anything. It's the reason that the GTD system has become so popular--it helps us spend more time in flow!

If you want them to remember, make it memorable.


The number eight is arbitrary, but the numeral "8" overlaid on a picture of the spider (which brains are preprogrammed to react to), helps "burn in" the link between spiders and the number 8.

Emotions aren't the only things that improve the memorability of something--pictures, patterns, chunking, and all sorts of "memory tricks" can make a huge difference in whether something is recorded or--sometimes more importantly--whether it can be easily recalled. But I'll save those tricks for another post.

For now, think about how you can use the brain's built-in memory "tagging" system to help users learn/remember more quickly. Link the thing you want remembered with something likely to evoke at least the tiniest chemical reaction. And what are those things? The same things that the brain finds interesting:

* Surprise, novelty, the unexpected

* Beauty

* Stories

* Conversation (including conversational writing)

* Emotionally touching (the whole kids and puppies thing)

* Counterintuitive failures or mistakes

* Fun, playfulness, humor

* Varying visuals

* Faces of people, especially with strong expressions

* Sounds, music

* Shock, creepy things

and of course...

* Sexiness

The difference between whether you use these things to help focus attention or to support long-term memory is in how (and for how long) you use them. A picture of a spider will get your brain's attention, but by linking that spider to something (like the number "8"), you greatly increase the chance that the link between spiders and 8 legs is remembered. A fact is more likely to be remembered if that fact is being "stated" by the face of a person with a strong facial expression. Getting what you expect is not nearly as memorable as when something you thought would work fails. On it goes...

Oh yes, there is one "emotion" that has the opposite effect on memory. The chemistry of anxiety (the stress of worry) is the one feeling that works against memory. So whatever you can do to make users/learners feel comfortable about the learning experience goes a long way toward supporting memory. If people are made to feel stupid for "not getting it", the chances they'll learn it (let alone remember it) drop. And unfortunately, way too many technical manuals, tech support FAQs, books, and poorly designed product interfaces DO make us feel stupid.

So, "interesting" gets your foot in the door, but "memorable" is what helps build and support passionate users.

Posted by Kathy on December 19, 2005 | Permalink


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A bit off-topic, but I'd really like to know how you learn about something like CREB-1 and CREB-2? I know you pointed to Eric's research, but how did you end up there? Did you set out looking for information on memory, or do you subscribe to some source that regularly feeds you this type of information? I'm curious because I have awful memory, an awful sense of smell, and a vague notion that that two are related, but no idea where to start looking for more info.

Posted by: Scott Reynen | Dec 19, 2005 11:00:24 AM


Every book on design patterns did not sink in, it made sense yes, but it just didn't sink in. A slightly altered approach in "Head First Design Patterns" and everything sank in and I spent three weeks just opening the book because *I wanted* to open the book.

Posted by: Jason Bell | Dec 19, 2005 5:58:25 PM

"The chemistry of anxiety (the stress of worry) is the one feeling that works against memory."

So you'd want to avoid trying to associate important ideas with anything that, while emotion-stimulating, may cause anxiety?

So you wouldn't try and associate something important with, just as an example, a HUGE FREAKIN' SPIDER!? : P

It's okay, though.
I was never that fond of the number 8 anyway.

Posted by: Graham Lea | Dec 19, 2005 8:05:32 PM

Very interesting theory!I beleive that the amount of emotion absorbed at one event determines the amount of time your brain remebers it!

Posted by: Ashley Bowers | Dec 20, 2005 12:53:46 AM

You just made me realize why a studying technique I used in college worked. In art history class I could never remember the decade a painting fell into. So my roommate taught me an invaluable trick. If the the test covered 5 decades, I'd number the decades sequentially 1-5. For example, a test covering 1820-70 would break into 5 groups. So that would be 1: 1820-30, 2: 1840-50...etc. The painting would then get a group number. Then, I would find something I could count the number of in the painting that correlated to the group. 5 spears in a painting meant it belonged to group 5: 1860-70. This trick saved me and now I know why. It's not scary like the spider, but it combined visual memory for the sake of passing a test. Perhaps there's also a gap between memory and learning. Because I'm still hopeless when it comes to naming a decade for older paintings.

Posted by: alicia | Dec 20, 2005 1:29:39 AM

Hi, I know I wrote you realier about NLP, but I cannot neglect this post... the trick with the number 8 over the image is a pure NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) pattern! I use it all the time to remember people's names: in your thaughts, write the name of the person over it's face, and than move the image up (look up without moving your head, only your eyes) and then down... this way you'll remember the name more easily!

Posted by: Jef Cumps | Dec 20, 2005 6:16:27 AM

I spend some time working with clients in integrating collaborative technologies into their business needs and processes. A lot of that technology is actually pretty simple (especially my area of interest - wikis). The toughest part is actually adoption and overcoming existing culture and resistance to change.

I can't emphacize enough how critical the subject of this post is as the means to accomplishing that end. I'm sure I didn't do it justice, but I referenced your post over on my blog - http://www.wikithat.com . Thanks for the insight.

Posted by: kris olsen | Dec 20, 2005 7:02:36 AM

What did you eat for dinner last Tuesday? Chances are, you do NOT remember

I have this scary ability to remember everything I eat - especially when at a restaurant. The surrounding environment and scenarioa are not what makes me remember. I guess it comes down to how much I love cooking and eating. Food always turns me on.

Posted by: Rich | Dec 20, 2005 8:32:14 AM

Graham makes an interest point. I think anxiety does improve memory when shock/horror/creepy-things is directly associated to what you want to remember (see Kathy's list). If the shock or anxiety is directly associated with what you want to remember, it helps. That spider works for me!

But when anxiety comes from an external source, it competes for your brain's resources. Worried about passing a test? The anxiety will ooze chemical nonsense and your brain will choose to focus on the anxiety rather than the material you want to remember. Your brain thinks that the anxiety is more important. In such a case, anxiety/shock/horror can become a distraction.

Could external anxiety become a help by forcing direct associations? "Oh man, if I don't pass this history test my parents are going to kill me like Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton." I'm curious. :)

Posted by: Marc Peabody | Dec 20, 2005 10:06:27 AM

Howdy all, thanks for the comments...

Scott: I have a great interest in the brain for two reasons:
1) I have a serious brain disorder (which has taken a downhill turn recently)
2) I'm deeply interested in it for the work I do -- first as an AI developer way back in the day when that was a cool thing, and later as an interaction/knowledge designer and teacher/author of learning books. If our readers/learners don't remember what we put in our books, then we failed.
But the field related to memory has exploded recently because of a big push in Alzheimer's research, coupled with the new -- and more available -- brain scan technologies, so the science of memory has moved foward dramatically in the last few years.
The Eric Kandel book is a great look at the neurochemistry of memory, but has little to say about improving yours. My favorite memory improvement book is probably Kenneth Higbee's (although someone may have other recommendations):

I'd recommend starting there. And you're right about smell... there's research that shows that just having a bowl of popcorn in the room when you study improves your memory for that content (although unfortunately the BEST results come when the popcorn is present at the time you need to recall it ; )

The good news is, memory can almost always be improved. You reminded me to write a post about specific things we can do to improve our own memory.

SPIDERS and anxiety: when I say "anxiety", I'm referring to the kind of low-level stress and worry that persists without causing a dramatic fear, startle, or strong aversion. Worry/anxiety/stress has a different chemical effect -- and the one that reduces rather than enhances memory. (And another reason so much of traditional school systems suck). One could develop anxiety about spiders if you thought, for example, that you had a constant spider problem in your house. But the effect of suddenly seeing a big one invokes a primitive "Yikes!" response (thanks to evolution) that causes a chemical response that the brain pays attention to.

This is an interesting contrast, though -- I'll say more about that in another post. There's a book I like that explains the subtle difference between fear vs. anxiety, by brain scientist Richard Restak-- "Poe's Heart and the Mountain Climber." Some people haven't liked the book, but I found it well worth reading. Explains why the last US election went the way it did...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Dec 23, 2005 10:05:17 PM

LOVE the list of things the brain finds interesting. I'm particularly interested in the "Faces of people, especially with strong expressions" item -- it's relevant to an elearning project that I'm working on, and I was wondering if you had a reference or link for that one(i.e. article, book, research study)?

Posted by: Julie | Dec 28, 2005 12:05:27 PM

Re: Scott's question about smell and memory -- there might be some interesting material linked off of this conference website: http://plaisir.berkeley.edu/

Google scholar is also an excellent place to start looking and frequently links to a number of full text articles http://scholar.google.com

Posted by: JD | Dec 28, 2005 12:22:02 PM

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