By Dominic O’Brien, Eight times World Memory Champion with Phil Chambers, Twice World Mind Mapping Champion.

We mentioned Herman Ebbinghaus in last week’s post with regard to the decline in memory after learning. 

His work also involved challenging himself to memorize a list of ‘nonsense syllables’ that had no previous associations. Each syllable consisted of three letters: DAJ for example. He would read through a list of twenty such syllables several times until he was able to memorise the exact sequence. 

Ebbinghaus observed that for a series of information, data near the beginning and end of the list were easier to recall than those in the middle. 

Read through the following list of words at a normal speed.

Ankle, thigh, skull, finger, toe, knee, thumb, Beethoven, toe, neck, wrist, chin, toe, nose, elbow, hip. 

I’m guessing you likely can recall the very last word? This is called the Recency Effect. The last experience of something is usually memorable. In this case the word hip.

How about the first few words? You may have remembered ankle, thigh, skull and, possibly, finger but I doubt whether you can go much further. This is the Primacy Effect. We tend do remember the first few items as these represent a new experience. We’re at our most alert and open to new information.

You might also recall the word toe, as this was repeated a couple of times. You may recall Beethoven as it’s the odd one out in the list.

If I switched categories and read out a list of composers, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Beethoven, Rachmaninov, and so on and then threw in the word knee, that would be more easily recalled. Anything that’s unusual or stands out from the rest of the crowd is called the Von Restorff Effect so named after the person who discovered it, female postdoctoral assistant at the University of Berlin called Hedwig von Restorff. It was first published in her scientific paper of 1933. 

Looked at another way, although you may not be able to recall all of those words in the exact sequence, your chances of success were increased because other than Beethoven, all the words describe body parts. So, association also helps us to remember a list of information.

The retail industry takes full advantage of this knowledge and exploits it in marketing and advertising. Repetition plays an important role in driving home the message and the Von Restorff effect is used to make sure a unique aspect of a product gets embedded in our long term memory.

Organizers of conferences are also aware of the Primacy and Recency effect which is why they tend to bill their most influential speakers at the beginning and the end. 

Whether you’re a student attending a sixty-minute lecture or watching a two-hour film, the graph of recall will look very similar: A U-shape with some peaks in the middle representing unusual, odd, stimulating or even shocking moments as well as repetitions and associations. 

It’s little surprise then, that the Ebbinghaus Curve is exactly the phenomenon experienced by a student attending a lecture. Unless the student is taking notes and using memory techniques, attention quickly wanes and valuable information is missed. Interest and engagement in the subject raises the whole curve.

That’s why it’s vitally important to take an active role during the learning process. When studying, attending a business course, or learning a new skill from a book, note-taking is the first step to lifting the information and putting it in a form that you can readily absorb. Mind Maps are the ideal tool for this as they not only summarise information but act as mnemonic techniques in their own right,

Even when note taking you still get a sag in the middle. An easy solution is to take regular breaks. It’s remarkable that you remember more by working less! When you take a break, you create a new end point and start point, therefore creating additional primacy and recency effects. This maintains recall as shown on the graph below. 

When you’re next studying something remember to break every 45 minutes or so and take effective notes. With a little applied psychology learning become so much easier.

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