Thursday, August 23, 2007

An Experiment On Memory Retention

I'm busy preparing for my new job these days, a job I'll start in less than a week. Other than organizing and packing eight and a half year's worth of office crap and moving it from one building to another in some semblance of planned chaos, preparation requires only one thing: STUDY.

My company sells nearly 3000 products, not counting the ones sold at other sites globally, and I will have to know or be able to retrieve obscure facts about nearly every one of them at a moment's notice to help the customers. The one best way to do this is to read and be able to regurgitate the product literature, especially the tome-like company handbook that we distribute to customers.

It's over a thousand pages long.

I have one of the worst memories of anyone I know, at least for common day-to-day stuff. If I have to shop for more than three things in one trip, I'd better write a list or I'll have hell to pay from my lovely wife, who never ceases to remind me of my particular handicap, especially if I go to the store for cheese and come back with four bags of not-cheese groceries. My memory is better for work-related topics, but not exactly stellar, and though my long years of developing products has given me a strong basis of wisdom to grow from, it is still a daunting task to absorb so much product data.

I was thinking about this tonight as I pulled out my company handbook, when my wife proudly exclaimed that she had just finished the 759th (and last) page of the final book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Then it occurred to me how one might better be able to retain large amounts of data: Fiction.

Children's books do it all the time – teach lessons by incorporating them into the text and pictures of a fiction book.

I told my fantastic idea to my wife, and she immediately scoffed at the idea. "An adult ought to be able to study information without having to have it in story form." But I wonder. I can recall exquisite details about nearly every book of fiction I have ever read. It seems most any Harry Potter fan out there can do the same. Just ask one what Lord Voldemort's real name is, the name of the spell that scares away the Dementors, or who Mrs. Norris is.

So I am devising a test, and I'm wondering what you think of it. As a writer of fiction, I imagine I could convert your average textbook chapter into a reasonable story that contains the same facts. Of course it would be much longer in order to accommodate all the data plus a tolerable plot and dialogue, but I'd be willing to read extra if I was sure it would help me retain the info. My test would have one group of volunteers read a couple textbook pages, and I would have another test group read a work of fiction which contains the same information plus some sort of reasonable plotline. Sure, it wouldn't be able to compete with J.K. Rowling, but I'd bet that incorporating the data this way would allow it to be better processed in our brains. I'd then test the volunteers on what they read just after the reading, a day after, and a week after, to determine the retention rate. I'd put my money on the fiction-readers.

Do you agree? Would you volunteer for this test?


Image taken from HERE.

8 comments:

Lila said...

Yes, I think it would work very well. People usually retain stories much better than facts in textbook format, just because we all love stories and have stories to share. That's probably why people retain gossip more than what was written in textbooks, right? That's just my psychology instinct.

Anonymous said...

I'm game to try it.

Anonymous said...

my son is an excellent reader in technical terms but due to neurological impairments has tremendous difficulty retaining and organizing textbook material. He says, "textbooks are not books" --and most often his observation is correct (there are exceptions). I think what you are suggesting makes a lot more sense than the k-12 textbook approach which is to try hodgepodge text, highlights, sidebars, charts, graphics, inserts, and all kinds of garbage together, with a result that is 1) confusing and 2) weighs too damn much in the backpack. As for me, I always enjoyed history, but got a lot more out of it after I was out of school, via historical fiction as well as magazine articles (Smithsonian, for example) and PBS programs.

Angry Lab Rat said...

Indeed, Anonymous! Textbooks weigh too damned much.

When I was in middleschool, I had so much homework and so many textbooks in my backpack that I had to walk hunched over. Now, I was short and fat (I still am, but you can now add "hairy"!), so I gained the unfortunate nickname of "Turtle" because of my homework-induced posture!

Anonymous said...

I would totally take this test. I think it's a great idea.

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Anonymous said...

Reading these kind of posts reminds me of just how technology truly is an integral part of our lives in this day and age, and I am 99% certain that we have passed the point of no return in our relationship with technology.


I don't mean this in a bad way, of course! Ethical concerns aside... I just hope that as the price of memory decreases, the possibility of uploading our brains onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It's one of the things I really wish I could see in my lifetime.


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