Mind & Body

You Remember in the Opposite Order as You See

The thing about Monday morning quarterbacks is that they can see the whole game — they can focus on all the little details in the context of the whole. But for the players in the game as it happens, only the details exist and the big picture comes into view later. And as it turns out, that big-to-small versus small-to-big approach is pretty much how memory and experience always go down.

Looking Back on the Big Picture

It's well-known that the brain processes sensory information starting with the details and working its way up to the big picture. So you can forgive Ning Qian, the principal investigator behind this new study, for assuming that we'd experience our memories in the same way. Instead, it turned out that memory went about it the exact opposite way. Here's how they figured that out.

Twelve subjects were shown a line at a 50-degree angle for a half-second, then asked to position two dots to indicate the angle of the line. They then repeated this task 50 more times. Then things got really interesting, because they were asked to repeat the same thing 50 more times, only with a 53-degree angle. In their third and final task, they were shown both lines at once, and had two pairs of dots to position. Whew — we're about to faint from all this excitement.

Okay, okay, so the test wasn't so exciting for the participants. But the experimenters were absolutely thrilled. There's not a lot of difference between 50 and 53 degrees, so you'd think that somebody trying to draw one and then the other would occasionally miscalculate and draw the smaller angle as larger. But in fact, the participants had a firm handle on the relationship between the two lines, suggesting that for memory, the big picture is the primary experience.

Remembering Patterns

Here's another way of stating what was happening in the participants' brains. Essentially, they were first encoding the angle of one line, then encoding the angle of the other, and finally putting that information into a big picture understanding of how the lines related to each other. But when they were decoding — that is, remembering — they started from the relationship between the two lines and estimated the angles based on that.

That means that if you've already identified a larger pattern in a sequence of events that you remember, you are more likely to remember the specific details that support that pattern (and, incidentally, forget the ones that don't). That could reveal a lot about the ways that people make decisions based on preconceived notions, and that's important since your biases could cost you big time.

Want to boost your own brain-space? Check out "Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster, Remember More and Be More Productive" by Kevin Horsley.

The Nature of Memory

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Written By Reuben Westmaas November 5, 2017