Sep 15, 2013

White Things

You're about to discover something about how your mind works. You'll do two brief fifteen-second exercises. You'll need a pen, a piece of paper, and a way to time yourself (a watch, a friend who can count for you, etc).

Don't read any further until you have your supplies and are ready to begin this exercise.


Start your fifteen-second timer and then follow the instructions for Step 1 below. Do not read ahead to Step 2.

Write down as many things that are white in color as you can think of.

STOP: Restart your fifteen-second timer. Then read on and follow the instructions for Step 2.

Write down as many white things in your refrigerator as you can think of.

If you're like most people, you listed about as many white things from their refrigerators as white anythings. Isn't this counter-intuitive? You had more potential things to choose from in the first run of the exercise, yet that didn't help you actually remember more items. For another example of this phenomenon, consider these two statements: (1) Think of five silly things that people have done in the world in the past ten years. (2) Think about five silly things your pet or child has done in the past ten years.

Why does this happen?

All memories are bound together in a web of associations.

For example, thinking about the word "pancake" also makes you think about maple syrup, breakfast, and the taste of sweetness. This is the result of electrical impulses firing around your brain along pathways which link the concepts of pancake, maple syrup, breakfast, and sweetness.

The associative nature of our brains makes it more efficient for us to dig up memories via an interconnected thought or perception than by brute force. In the previous exercises, focusing your mind on something concrete (your refrigerator and your pet or child) helped you remember associated items faster.

The two takeaways from this exercise are that (1) When trying to memorize something, we'll do better by creating mental associations of concrete things than by trying to simply drill it in (2) When we communicate, the more concrete and visual we are, the more powerful and memorable our ideas will be in the minds of others.