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Monday, August 3, 2009

Keep Breathing space for memory During Speech

During the body of the talk, it is too easy for ideas to become jumbled together in the listeners’ minds. Unless the speaker is careful to mark the sections with clear signposts, the landscape of the talk will merge into a blur, and few details of the mental journey will be remembered. Where new ideas interfere with ones previously presented there exists what psychologists call ‘retroactive’ interference. Where old ideas interfere with those following (perhaps because they are so arresting that the listener’s mind is still partly dwelling on them) psychologists call it ‘proactive’ interference. The technical terms are not important, but the principle is. Memory depends on clear space around important ideas and facts, and rest or silence is the best form of clear space.

Despite every care, it is still not possible for a speaker to ensure that everything he says is remembered. Partly this is just an inescapable fact of mental life. People forget. Forgetting itself is an interesting subject and psychologists have suggested a number of reasons for forgetting. They include repression, a word coined by Freud to describe the way people force out of consciousness events and ideas which for some reason they do not want to remember. Motivation is as important in forgetting as it is in remembering. Quite slight motives can lead to forgetting, such as an embarrassing professional lapse, which may lead to all information surrounding the situation being repressed.

Other causes of forgetting are the decay of the memory traces for physical reasons, interference from other similar memories, and loss of the ability to locate the memory. According to this last hypothesis, all memories are retained in the brain, but retrieving them is too difficult. Recalling other features of the experience, or working gradually back into our memories, will often enable us to discover memories we had thought lost. Thus my father, writing his autobiography for his grand children in his seventy-second year, started re-telling an incident in which a school-fellow had died of meningitis. To his surprise he found he could remember the boy’s name, and even his address. He had not remembered those facts for sixty years, and certainly could not have recalled them had he been asked. The ‘search’ theory of memory claims that forgetting happens when more and more memories are built up without enough features to differentiate between them. Unless simple clues are given to act as handles, it becomes harder and harder to find any particular fact, from the mass of detail in the memory.

Let me make three final points about memory before concluding this section. The first point is that it is useful to distinguish between active and passive memories. Faces seen at a meeting, for example, remain familiar if we meet them again, even though we may not be able to place a name on them. The image of almost every face we see is retained in the memory; but voluntary access to the information has been lost. Recognition is passive; active recall requires a pathway into the memory. Effective memory relies on clear structures being developed to retain access, and not just on the vividness of the memory itself. The speaker’s task, therefore, is to provide this unforgetable structure, without which the detail amassed in the talk will be lost, like water poured onto sand.

The need for organization to help active memory leads me to the second point. Unless we can see a structure in the details, they are less meaningful, and therefore much more difficult to retain in memory.

It is immediately obvious that learning the first list would be a major task, whereas the middle list is only moderately hard, and the last list is perfectly easy to remember. The conclusion for the speaker is obvious; break up similar facts into patterns. Remember that you must link new ideas into existing ones, using a clear structure, if you want your audience to remember them

The third and final point about memory is a more hopeful one. It is a strange fact that we are usually modest about our memories. Hans Eysenck comments that:

"when you ask most people about their memory, the first thing they usually say is that they have the bad luck to have a very poor memory. There is an interesting contrast here with what happens when you ask people about their intelligence or sense of humour: only a very small percentage of people will admit to below-average intelligence or a poor sense of humour!"

The memory is extraordinarily powerful, much better than we think. When tested on their memory of ten thousand pictures, people recognized 99.6% of them correctly. As the researcher commented: “the recognition of pictures is essentially perfect”. The brain is highly sophisticated and memory itself has no visible limits. The audience could remember much more than they often do; the amount is not limited by any natural maximum capacity. If the speaker prepares his talk in a way which provides the opportunities for memory, and offers a clear scaffolding of organization on which the memories can be hung, there is no limit to what the audience can be
helped to remember.