Don’t Forget! A Memorization Exploration
What did you have for breakfast last Monday? What color is the floor in your favorite classroom? If you don’t remember the answer to these questions, that’s ok! Your brain is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. Our brains are nearly perfect storage devices, and part of their perfection is that they know which information to store, and which to throw away. Imagine your house if you never threw anything away – how quickly would it become full of garbage and waste? Your brain is the same way, it stores the information that is useful and important to you, and throws away the rest. Sometimes your brain remembers things without you consciously telling it to (you remember the way to your bedroom without ever having had to tell your brain to memorize this information). Other times, we have to tell our brains that information is important. We can do this by paying close attention, and employing a few memory tricks!
This activity is not appropriate for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.
Learning and memory are both the subject of a tremendous amount of research and study. While there is a still a great deal to learn about these brain processes, we do know that two of the most important factors for how well we remember something include how closely we are paying attention, and whether the memory relates to something we already know. If you aren’t paying attention when someone tells you something, there’s a good chance you aren’t going to remember what that person said (this is why your teachers are always telling you to ‘Pay Attention!’). In addition, we tend to form strong memories in novel (new) situations. For example, you can probably recall the first day of the school year much more clearly than you can remember the 4th or 5th day. Once we get used to a new situation, our memories tend be fewer and less specific. In contrast, many memory ‘tricks’ involve taking new information and associating it with something you already know. For instance, if you want to remember that the capital of Mississippi is Jackson, you might imagine your friend Jack playing in the Mississippi River. Our minds love recognizing patterns and relationships between new and old information. If you can find ways to help your mind do that, you can improve your ability to store and recall information.
In this activity you’ll be exploring the memory capacity of a few volunteers, and trying out one technique for improving memory, known as chaining.
Do all of your preparation somewhere private, so your volunteers can’t see your tray before you start the experiment!
Extra: Try repeating this activity, but experiment by increasing or decreasing the time allowed for volunteers to memorize the tray.
Observations and Results
In this activity you tested your volunteer’s short term memory capacity, and then experimented with the effect of ‘chaining’ one of the many techniques that can help improve someone’s memory and recall.
Results for this activity will vary slightly across different people – every mind is different! However, you may have noticed some consistent patterns. For example, you may have found that both of your volunteers remembered the first or last objects (the ones in squares 1 and/or 12) more clearly than they remembered the objects in the middle of the tray (for example, the objects in squares 6 and 7). If this is the case, this could have to do with two memory characteristics known as ‘recency and priming’. In the case of recency, we tend to remember things more clearly when they just happened. If someone tells you a number and asks you to repeat it back to them, it’s much easier to repeat it right after they tell you, compared to if they ask you the number the next day. In this case, your volunteer may have viewed the last objects on the tray (the ones in squares 11 and 12) right before the time ran out. Therefore these objects are easier to recall.
In contrast, the earliest objects (in squares 1 and 2) may have been the first ones that your volunteer noticed. In this case, the activity was still new and novel to your volunteer. Our brains love novelty, you’ll notice that in their day to day lives most people don’t sit and stare straight ahead, their eyes are constantly moving around, taking in new information. Our minds are often sharpened by new situations, and in those cases we tend to have clearer memories of the things we noticed first. If your volunteers remembered the early objects (in squares 1 and 2) the best, it may be because they were especially interested in the task when they first saw those squares!
In the second part of this task you explored whether the memory technique known as ‘chaining’ had any effect on your volunteer’s ability to recall the objects. This technique is very effective for some people, in part because our brains are good at making associative memories. We often (unconsciously) look for patterns or relationships to help us remember things – when you meet someone named ‘Tom’ you might immediately think of someone you already know named Tom. This helps you remember the new Tom’s name. In the case of chaining, you are creating associations between the objects, even when they don’t exist. If your volunteers found it helpful, tell them to try it on their next exam!
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