What kinds of things do people remember best?

Nutrition & Food Science

ISSN: 0034-6659

Article publication date: 1 December 1999



Wells, D. (1999), "What kinds of things do people remember best?", Nutrition & Food Science, Vol. 99 No. 6. https://doi.org/10.1108/nfs.1999.01799faf.003



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 1999, MCB UP Limited

What kinds of things do people remember best?

What kinds of things do people remember best?

Memory consists of three stages: encoding, when information is put into memory; storage, when information is transferred to memory; and retrieval, when information is recovered from memory. Memories we retain are not always accurate and failures can occur at each of the three stages. The kinds of things people remember best are those that are efficiently encoded and stored and effectively retrieved.

This article will consider the factors that predispose the individual to effective retrieval of information that has been positively encoded and stored in everyday memory. Everyday memory is taken to mean autobiographic memory which relates to factors such as personal goals, life history, emotions and relationships.

According to schema theory, knowledge we store in memory is organised as mental representations known as schemas. Each schema incorporates all the information we have acquired, for example, about people, objects, situations or events. New experiences relating to an event, such as a visit to a restaurant, are stored within the schema we have for other visits of the same kind. New information is stored within pre-existing schemas from previously acquired knowledge. Generally speaking we may not remember very well a particular visit to a restaurant as the information is stored within a general "visiting the restaurant" schema. This is described as the overall schema consisting of sub-schemas.

Schema theory has been criticised because it does not account for why a particular occasion may stand out in our memories. People tend to remember best what is unique about a particular occasion. For example, they would remember a visit to a restaurant when their escort knocked over a glass of red wine that permanently stained their best, light-coloured dress. They are also likely to remember the visit to the restaurant when their partner proposed marriage. These notable or unique events were described as the schema-plus-tag model by Graesser and Nakamura in 1982. This model accounts for both the general schema and any distinctive tags or markers applying to unusual or unexpected aspects of an event. Such events would be well remembered.

Schank in 1982 proposed a hierarchical arrangement of memory representations called memory organisation packets. At higher levels within the hierarchy representations become more general. They are stored within schemas which include other events of a similar type. However, events that are unusual or notable in any way may be remembered very well. These are the events that people remember best.

In 1982 Marigold Linton recorded at least two events that occurred each day over a six-year period. Every month she read two of these accounts selected at random and tried to recall the events. She noted each event for its importance and emotionality at the time she recorded each event and when she tried to recall it. She found it was difficult to recall individual events that had occurred regularly. For example, she regularly attended committee meetings. But her memory was only distinctive for the very first meeting and the last meeting she had attended.

This may be explained by the fact that at the first meeting she would have met fellow committee members and have become familiar with the general proceedings of the meeting. This would generate a lot of episodic memory and being unique occurrences would be memorable. Subsequent meetings would be less distinctive and more similar to each other. They would be stored as a general "committee meeting" schema. The memory traces of the last meeting would also be fresh and make the meeting easy to remember. Recent memories can be accessed more easily than remote ones.

Linton found that over 60 percent of events that had happened four and a half years ago were forgotten if they had not previously been tested. Only 40 percent of events were forgotten from the same period if they had been tested. This stresses the importance of rehearsal in maintaining memories. Linton also explained her findings by attributing an increase in semantic memory with subsequent committee meetings. Her epidosic or autobiographical memory for specific events decreased over the same period.

Wagenaar also carried out a personal diary study recording 2,000 events over a six-year period. For each event he recorded who was with him, what, where and when it occurred. He also noted the importance, uniqueness and emotionality of each event. Wagenaar tested his ability to recall events by using these cues. The most powerful cue was found to be "what" followed by "where" and "who". The "when" cue was virtually useless. Importance and rarity were found to be associated with a high level of recall.

These case studies reflect the ability of two people to recall memories and cannot be applied to everyone. However they do suggest that what we remember best from our own everyday memories are events which are important, distinctive and emotional, events that remain so throughout our lives. Events that are commonplace or trivial are not so easily remembered. We must also bear in mind that what we personally remember best are to some extent a reflection of our own personalities. What may be memorable to one person may be trivial to another.

This influence is also shown in our vivid recollection of what have been called flashbulb memories, such as learning of the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the resignation of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.

Brown and Kulick suggest that there is a special neural mechanism responsible for our remembering events that individuals find emotionally charged, surprising or earth shattering in some way. They suggest that this mechanism is responsible for the vivid recollection people often have with flashbulb memories. Neisser questions this neural mechanism and claims that such memories are maintained by frequent rehearsal. He also claims that such memories often turn out to be inaccurate. It is not clear whether flashbulb memories are due to a special neural mechanism or regular reactivation. Whatever the mechanism, many people find these memories are particularly well preserved.

Conway and Bekerian in 1987 identified three levels of autobiographical memory: lifetime periods, general events and event-specific knowledge. They claimed that lifetime periods are more effective cues than many others for retrieval of memory. This is because each lifetime period is unique to the individual with its own goals and emotions. So we remember more, for example, about different jobs we have done or having children and watching them develop.

Schuman and Rieger in 1992 asked 1,410 Americans to list important public events during their last 50 years of life. They found that subjects were most likely to report events which had occurred when the subjects were in their late teens or early twenties. This is the age range when new experiences are encountered and they continue to be well remembered.

Event-specific knowledge relates to feelings and emotions. Brewer, in 1988, gave subjects randomly timed signals as cues to memory retrieval. A smell of garlic might recall vividly a memorable holiday in France or a particular piece of music one's first love affair. Many people feel they lose recollections of childhood as the years go by. But when they return to the streets they played in as children or visit their old school they are surprised by the number of childhood experiences that come flooding back. The memory traces are waiting to be activated by appropriate retrieval cues.

In conclusion, it may be stated that the kinds of things people remember best are those that are distinctive and most meaningful to them personally. Many everyday occurrences become grouped together within a schema that includes all the information we have about a series of events of situations. Events that are unusual or distinctive are usually well remembered. This may explain why many memories date back to the late teens or early twenties when so many new experiences are being encountered. Personal memories with emotional involvement are also readily recalled. Meaningful cues relating to vivid experiences or emotionality also help people remember events from their earlier life.

Dilys Wells

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