Friday, 26 April 2013


On Meaning and Memory

     There works a mysterious mechanism within us which teaches us not to touch a hot iron twice, enables us to calculate forty divided by two, to recall what we first noticed about our favourite teacher, and even form a sense of who we are and what our life is about. It is a curious phenomenon which seems to decay even as it just begins to form! You will be able to understand this statement better if you heard a 10- digit phone number that seems easy enough to remember until when asked to repeat it! This amazing capacity allows you to recall in great detail every colour you saw and every sound you heard on a trip to your favourite amusement park while at the same time, it may fail you when you try to recall some important dates from your history lesson! This indispensable, yet sometimes amusing psychological process is Memory!

     There are many different kinds of information that comes to our attention every day. Some of these we may classify as irrelevant to us and these never get coded in our memory while some other bits of information may be necessary for our functioning and performance in our everyday tasks. These personally relevant information get coded and stored more easily than the peripheral data. Just imagine how much easier it is for you to remember the address of your new house than the birthday of your father’s friend!

     Information that stand out in terms of their novelty and intensity get coded in our memories faster and are retained for longer periods of time! A piercing noise that breaks the silence of your exam hall gets into your memory system more readily and strongly that the sound of a falling pencil. A funny comment in the midst of a serious lecture, for example, makes the information distinct and hence more easily committed to memory! Thus, the mood or the state of mind in which we receive certain information, hugely determines how much we are going to be able to recall later! The context in which we study such as our surroundings, background noise (or music in some cases!) can also facilitate or impede memory.

     Meaningful information get stored more easily than non-meaningful ones. A very interesting experiment by Hermann Ebbinghaus, one of the earliest contributors to research on memory, explained the  remarkable tendency of human beings to induce meaning into seemingly nonsensical information in order to memorise and recall them better! He made a list of what are called “nonsense syllables”, which are words that have no meaning. BAX, TOJ, LIY, DEQ and the like are examples. He also made nonsense syllables using only consonants such as DRW, FXP, KDR which are hard to even associate with words we know already! He found that people still attempt to induce meaning into these words and recall them!

     Imagine the sheer will to meaning that we as human beings have even when faced with recalling non-words! If only we can adopt a more meaningful approach to information in the curriculum so that the drudgery we associate with learning can be replaced with wonderment and enjoyment!