Mind & Body

You Can Sharpen Your Memory With the Zeigarnik Effect

Radio jingles are just the worst. Hours, days, maybe even years after hearing that catchy "free credit report dot com!" melody, it seems to haunt your dreams. It doesn't even matter if you like the tune or not. That's by design — jingle writers know exactly how to keep their melody running through your mind. It comes down to a psychological phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect.

May I Take Your Order?

The Zeigarnik Effect describes the way an unfinished task sticks in your memory better than a finished one. In the case of radio jingles, those melodies are often written so that they don't "resolve" musically, giving you the impression that there's more to the song. The effect is named after its founder, Russian psychiatrist and psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik. Believe it or not, the phenomenon was inspired by busy waiters. It all started in 1920s Berlin while Zeigarnik was dining with her professor, Kurt Lewin. He noticed that although the waiters never wrote anything down, they could remember every single item a customer ordered — that is, until after the bill was paid, at which point they could hardly remember anything.

Zeikarnik decided to put this anecdotal observation to the test. She asked 164 adults and children to complete 18 to 22 basic tasks like puzzles, math problems, and craft projects, each of which took three to five minutes to complete. For half of the tasks, seemingly at random, her team would interrupt the participants so they couldn't complete what they were doing. After all of the tasks were attempted, the team asked the participants to recall which tasks they had worked on. Zeigarnik found that adults were nearly twice as likely to remember the unfinished tasks they had worked on than the finished tasks. The effect was even greater for the children.

It turns out that you remember things better when they're left unfinished. If you have a goal you've set your mind to, no matter what you are doing, thoughts about that goal tend to pop into your head. The study suggests that an interrupted task triggers a strong motivation to complete it. While that's good news for the unfinished task, it also makes doing other things even more difficult because your mind is elsewhere. This may also explain why it's so hard to focus on anything else when you're in an unresolved fight with someone — your mind wants closure, regardless of whether you're ready to resolve the conflict.

Can't Get You Out of My Head

Knowing about the Zeigarnik effect might not help you rid yourself of jingles that are written to exploit this tendency (in that case, try chewing gum), but it might help you get a regular song out of your head. You might be remembering an earworm because your mind sees it as an unfinished task, so the next time you get a song stuck in your head, try thinking about the ending. If you can't remember it, turn the song on and belt your heart out until it reaches that final chord. You'll satisfy your brain, and you'll probably be happier overall.

You can also use the Zeigarnik effect to your advantage. Since not finishing a task keeps that task in the forefront of your memory, try completing important essays, projects, and other big tasks in smaller chunks. That'll ensure your brain will have intrusive thoughts about them until they're completed, and that may result in a more thoughtful final product. You could even try it in social situations: To ensure new acquaintances remember you, you could tell them a gripping story — then be "unexpectedly" interrupted by a phone call before you reach the thrilling conclusion.

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For more science-backed ways to sharpen your mind, check out "The Leading Brain: Neuroscience Hacks to Work Smarter, Better, Happier" by Friederike Fabritius and Hans W. Hagemann. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Annie Hartman July 24, 2018

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