Key Concepts
Learning, memory

Introduction

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.

Background

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.

Materials

  • 1 baking tray
  • 24 small household objects (see preparation section for suggestions)
  • Wax or parchment paper (enough to cover the baking tray several times)
  • A black marker
  • Several pieces of note paper
  • A pen or pencil
  • At least 2 volunteer subjects
  • Roll of paper towels
  • A stopwatch or timer

Preparation

Do all of your preparation somewhere private, so your volunteers can’t see your tray before you start the experiment!
  1. Spread the parchment paper over your baking tray
  2. Use your black marker to draw a grid on the parchment paper, 4 columns across and 3 rows down. Use all of the space provided by the paper. Number each cell of your grid 1-12. Make the numbers small and inconspicuous. See below for example.

    1

    2

    3

    4

    5

    6

    7

    8

    9

    10

    11

    12

  3. Choose 12 of your household objects and arrange them so that there is one object in each grid cell. Suggestions for household objects include: Battery, toothpick, Pen cap, Paper clip, safety pin, dental floss, rubber band, magnet, piece of gum/candy, penny (or other coin), lip balm, thumb drive, key, bottle cap, sticker, clothes pin, thumbtack, earring/ring, nail polish, bottle, hair tie, pebble, leaf, band aid, bobby pin, key ring, rubber eraser, toy car, glue stick, crayon, teabag.

    (Note: these are just suggestions, feel free to get creative and use your own objects, as long as they are small enough to fit in the grid cells you drew!)

  4. Carefully cover the tray with a paper towel so that your volunteer can’t view the objects.
  5. Read this section when you get to Step 11 of this activity:

    Information about ‘chaining’:

    “Chaining is a technique that can help improve your ability to remember and recall information. It is a form of visualization, which involves picturing the object you’re trying to remember. Chaining is especially useful when you have several items you want to remember. To remember the objects, link them together by thinking of images or situations that connect them. For example, if you’re trying to remember a grocery list that includes apples, milk, eggs and bread, try chaining these items together in your mind by imagining apples floating in milk. Then imagine eggshells filled with milk. Finally picture an egg sandwich with lots of bread. This technique can help you remember by creating associations between the objects you want to memorize. Now you can try it with this activity!”

Procedure

  1. Have your first volunteer sit across from you at a table. Place the covered tray between you and your volunteer.
  2. Tell your volunteer that you’re going to give them 45 seconds to look at the tray. During that time they should try to memorize as many of the objects on the tray as possible. When the time is up, you will cover the tray again, and ask them to write down a list of all the objects that they remember.
  3. When your volunteer is ready, uncover the tray and immediately start your timer.
  4. Remain quiet during the 45 seconds that your volunteer is looking at the tray. Don’t allow your volunteer to write anything down during this time.
  5. When the 45 seconds is up, cover the tray and place it under the table so your volunteer can no longer see it.
  6. Give your volunteer a piece of paper and a pen, and ask them to list all of the objects they remember.
  7. Start your timer again, and allow your volunteer to spend 1.5 minutes listing the objects they remember. When the time is up, take the list from your volunteer.
  8. Uncover the tray and compare your volunteer’s list to the objects on the tray. Next to each object on their list, write the number of the grid cell that object occupied. For example, if there was a Band Aid in the number 3 cell, write the number 3 next to ‘Band Aid’ on your volunteer’s list.
  9. Underneath your volunteer’s list, write down each object that they forgot, and the corresponding grid cell. For example, if there was a pebble in the number 8 cell, and your volunteer didn’t write pebble on their list, you write ‘Pebble, 3’.
  10. Ask your volunteer to turn and face away from you. Remove all of the objects from the tray, and replace them with the 12 objects you didn’t use the first time. Cover the tray again.
  11. Before your volunteer turns around, read them the paragraph in the preparation section about the memory method known as chaining. Explain that you’re going to repeat the experiment, and this time they should try this technique when they’re memorizing the objects. 
  12. When your volunteer is ready, uncover the tray and immediately start your timer.
  13. When the 45 seconds is over, cover the tray and place it under the table so your volunteer can no longer see it.
  14. Give your volunteer a piece of paper and a pen, and ask them to list all of the objects they remember.
  15. Start your timer again, and allow your volunteer to spend 1.5 minutes listing the objects they remember. When the time is up, take the list from your volunteer.
  16. Uncover the tray and compare your volunteer’s list to the objects on the tray. Next to each object on their list, write the number of the grid cell that object occupied. For example, if there was a Band Aid in the number 3 cell, write the number 3 next to ‘Band Aid’ on your volunteer’s list.
  17. Underneath your volunteer’s list, write down each object that they forgot, and the corresponding grid cell. For example, if there was a pebble in the number 8 cell, and your volunteer didn’t write pebble on their list, you write ‘Pebble, 3’.
  18. Compare your volunteer’s first list and second list. Which time did your volunteer do better? Notice which cell numbers you listed next to the items they forgot. Did they always forget the object in a certain cell? Did they always remember the objects in a certain cell?
  19. Ask your volunteer if they used the ‘chaining’ memory technique, and if so, did it help them memorize the objects. Did they remember more objects during the second experiment?
  20. Repeat steps 1-19 with your second volunteer. Compare their performance with your first volunteer. Did either of your volunteers improve on their second try? Did you notice any patterns related to which objects they remembered or forgot? What about which cells they remembered or forgot?
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!

More to Explore

Do The Eyes Have it? by Science Buddies

How Many Letters? by Science Buddies

Science Activities for All Ages! from Science Buddies

Credits

Megan Arnett, PhD, Science Buddies

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Key Concepts
Learning, memory
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