What a scientist can learn from memory athletes

what a scientist can learn from a memory athlete

© tbagaric

Or how to increase the information retention rate

We are build to forget. The default route for our thoughts is the trash bin. Most of the information that crosses our mind will never stick permanently. This might sound depressing, but it is not. In fact, we are fortunate that our brain works this way. How we would feel if we remembered all the misery, anger and disappointment that comes our way on a daily basis?

Researchers estimate that we have about 60 000 thoughts in a single day. Most research also confirms that the vast majority of these thoughts are negative. This is no surprise if you know that there are 3 times more words with a negative connotation, than there are with a positive connotation. No wonder there is so much unhappiness in the world, without making any conclusion on what was first. Studies also show that to neutralise a negative thought you should have at least 3 positive thoughts to counteract. Not an easy task.

People with the rare condition hyperthymesia are able to recall almost every day in their lives with great detail. This might sound like a super power, but it turns out that most of them are experiencing exhaustion and depression due to the flood of uncontrollable (bad?) memories. They live in the past. They are trapped in their own memories.

I think you agree by now that the default route to forget is not such a bad thing. It keeps us happy (you can use this excuse next time you forget to put out the trash). But many of us are looking for hacks and ways to have a better memory, or at least remember more of the important information that comes our way with increasing intensity every day. Just imagine that you could remember more of the science articles you read or the science seminars you attend. Wouldn’t that be great?

Well, I have good news for you! There is an easy way to hijack your brain and make it remember more. It is a method that memory athletes use all the time to win mnemonic championships. In fact it is at the core of how these people can remember an astonishing amount of information in a very short amount of time. They use visualisation techniques. By linking abstract information to lively and interesting images (in their heads), these memory champions manage to remember lists of phone numbers, lists of names, they can memorise the order of one shuffled deck of 52 playing cards at unreal speed (world record: 21.90 seconds), etc.

I’m not trying to convince you to become a memory athlete or even practice what they are doing, but I think we can learn a very important lesson here. If we want people to remember what we are saying we have to communicate more visually. Our brain is not very good at remembering blocks of text, but we are masters when it comes to remembering visual information. Especially when the visual information is relevant and supporting the underlying story.

Everybody remembers the pictures and video of the 9/11 attack, while a few will be able to recall the written stories. Rebels will always take over TV stations (or use YouTube) to spread their propaganda. They understand the power of visual communication and how this influences people more than written pamphlets. Visual learning is an effective technique to educate children. And this list goes on and on.

This information is not new for most scientists. In fact, we already communicate a lot with visuals in scientific publications and science talks. But yet, there is a huge opportunity to improve and optimise. Most science talks I’ve seen have too much text on the slides and most figures in publications are not optimised to convey the message most effectively. But what can we do to improve this and increase the information retention rate for ourselves and others?

The method I advise to use is to study (graphic) design and advertising. These 2 industries are highly dependent on standing out visually. I think we can agree that if they don’t succeed visually, they’ll be out of business before they even started. If a graphic designer can not make her visuals stick in your mind, she failed. What about us? What about a scientist that publishes a figure and it doesn’t catch the reader?

If you will start using the power of visual communication more effectively in your science communication, your audience will remember what you’ve said. They will even be able to recall it after a while and they might even tell it to other people. Your research will spread and impact other scientists. And you… you’ll gain credibility.

This blog focusses on exactly that. In past and future articles I’ll give you tips and tricks, opinions and reflections on how to “visually succeed in scientific publishing”.

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