[Book excerpt] Why are stories so memorable?


Brain briefsThe following is an excerpt from the chapter ‘Why Are Stories So Memorable?’ from our book ‘Brain Briefs: Answers to the Most (and Least) Pressing Questions About Your Mind’.

One of the key benefits of stories is that they help information stick in our memories, which makes them a powerful tool for organizational communication. In this chapter, we explain how exactly stories accomplish this feat. Enjoy!

Ooooh. I’ve almost got it. Wait. Wait. Gimme a sec. Well, maybe not.

Trying to recall facts often leads to experiences just like that. We know we know it, we know it’s in there somewhere, we’ve almost got it, but we can’t quite seem to find it in the vast expanse of our memories.

The retrieval of memories is enhanced by connections among facts.  The more that a given piece of information is connected to other pieces, the easier it is to remember.  You are unlikely to forget the name of the US President during the Civil War, for example, because there are so many different things you know about that are associated with Abraham Lincoln.  All of these connections make it easy to remember him because they provide multiple pathways to the name.

And this leads us to why stories are so much more memorable than individual facts:  stories provide lots of interconnections among individual pieces of information.  These interconnections make stories and the facts embedded in them easy to recall, which is why even very young children can recount long and elaborate stories without breaking a sweat. The facts that make up a story are connected to other related facts, which are connected to still other facts, and each part of the story triggers the recall of other parts.

Stories provide lots of interconnections among individual pieces of information. Click To Tweet

We both like telling jokes, and even jokes we’ve not told in a long time seem to roll of the tongue with very little effort. One big reason why we’re able to remember lots of jokes is that each one involves a few characters and situations that are profusely interconnected in our memories. The content of every joke is a set-up for the punch line at the end. We remember all of the elements that make the punch line funny, and that helps us recall the structure of the entire joke.

These interconnections are not the only thing that helps make stories memorable, though. You have heard many stories in your life, and as a result you have developed beliefs about what makes a good story. These beliefs about typical stories are called schemas, which are structures or outlines of what good stories entail. Because of these schemas you have developed expectations about what’s likely to happen in stories, and you tend to remember things that relate to your schemas.

In a classic study from the early 1970s, John Bransford and Marcia Johnson had participants read a story that was preceded by a title that suggested the story’s schema. For example, one story was titled “Watching a peace march from the 40th floor.”  (We did say this was the early 1970s.)  Most of the story was about crowds moving about, television cameras, and speeches.  In the middle of the story was the strange sentence: “The landing was gentle, and the atmosphere was such that no special suits had to be worn.”

Most people who read the sentence didn’t really understand it, because they couldn’t make it fit with the rest of their schema for peace marches. As a result, when they were later asked to recall the story they had read, they didn’t remember the sentence.

Another group of participants read the same story, but were told its title was “A Space Trip to an Inhabited Planet.”  This group was perfectly able to understand the strange sentence when they read it and they also were more likely than the participants who thought they were reading about a peach march to recall it.

When you read or hear stories and when you experience events in your life, you understand them in light of the schemas you have developed over time. Those schemas affect not only which parts of an event make sense to you; they also influence what you remember about it later.

When you experience unfamiliar situations, you tend to pay more attention to aspects that fit with your existing schemas than to aspects that don’t. Likewise, you tend to remember the details that are consistent with your schemas. Things that don’t fit often drop out of memory. Events that happened in an unusual sequence (compared to the sequence in the relevant schema) can get switched in your memory back to an order that you’ve more typically experienced. When you recall past events, you may even insert details into your recollections where they don’t belong.

With the passage of time, all of your memories tend to morph in ways that resemble typical schemas, even when a given story did not actually fit that schema. Why would your brain behave like this? Why not simply record events as they happen and store them with high fidelity?

The first step in understanding the answers to these questions is to recognize that the purpose of memory is to help us interpret the world in the future. Everything we encounter in the present engages schemas that help us predict what will happen next.

The purpose of memory is to help us interpret the world in the future. Click To Tweet

Most of the time when you need to recall past experiences or stories you have been told, it isn’t necessary that you get all of the details right as long as you can remember enough to do a reasonably good job of predicting what will happen in new situations. So, unlike a video recording, your memory can make systematic mistakes about what happened during past events, mistakes that most often have no negative consequences.

When you recall a memory, it feels like you’re simply accessing complete buckets of information that you can then think about.  Consider your memory of having breakfast with family on a Sunday morning.  The experience of having breakfast includes lots and lots of pieces: tastes, images, smells, sounds, conversations, movements, and emotions. Yet, when you think of having breakfast, all of those pieces seem to come neatly knitted together.

What you don’t realize is that at the time of recall all of those pieces have to be collected from the various locations in the brain where they were stored and then put back together to form a memory. You do this each time we recall anything.

Schemas form a template that helps our brains glue pieces of memories together. Because your memory doesn’t faithfully record everything that happens (not by a long shot), there are a lot of details you need to fill in to make the memory tell a coherent story.  You use your schema to fill in those details.

That means that you will add details from your schema that weren’t part of the actual event you are remembering.  As a result, you will recall things that didn’t actually happen.

You also tend to combine information from different events that are related to a common schema when doing so helps you to make predictions in the future. These features of human memory are in most ways advantageous, but they can also lead to serious mistakes that are difficult for you to recognize.

From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense.  The creatures who were best able to make predictions are the ones who survived.  It didn’t actually matter if those predictions were based on a single instance or multiple experiences that were woven together.

When you understand a story, you use your knowledge of stories you have encountered in a past to help you.  This knowledge—in the form of schemas—also affects what you remember later on.  When you retrieve a story from memory, your recollection may include inaccuracies, both because you made predictions using schemas as you were first experiencing the story and because those same schemas affect what you include in your reconstructions of the memory.

Even with those inaccuracies, many of which are trivial, the story is useful to you in knitting together disparate components and forming something that seems to make sense. The connectedness and sensibleness allow you to recall more than you could if we tried to stuff disconnected bits of information into your head.

Understanding that recalling memories is in fact an act of reconstructing stored components of past experiences suggests that you should be a little skeptical about the fidelity of your memories, even those (perhaps especially those) about which we feel the most certain.

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