Polkadots & Sunbeams

Written by Larisa A. White

“I’m just not good at remembering things.”

I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve heard — and said — that sentence. But I’ve long since lost count. I envision the “dark matter” of the universe as a sea of forgotten phone numbers and names, floating around with half-forgotten algebra rules and geometry postulates, historical dates, recipes, and the occasional odd sock. It’s a nightmare, really. The question is: Why can’t we remember these things?

The answer has a lot to do with why we see polkadots, right after we stupidly stare at the sun.

We have achieved the first stage of putting something into memory: We successfully focused our attention long enough for a stimulus to be imprinted in our sensory registers, or “immediate memory” banks. But, just as the spots in front of our eyes will fade, any sensory imprint will fade — and be gone forever — in a little under a minute**. Now, a minute is a long time if you count out the seconds…

(Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait.)

…and it’s a REALLY LONG TIME when staring at the blackboard in a boring class, or smiling and nodding at an insipid conversationalist at a party. It feels like forever. It feels like it’s literally being burned into our memory. And if we “test” ourselves during that minute, we may think we have successfully memorized whatever it was we just saw or heard. But we haven’t.

In order to turn that sensory imprint into a lasting memory, we must pull it into our working memory and actively think about it. Ask ourselves if it fits in with other things we have seen or heard, and how, and why (or why not). Ask ourselves if it makes sense. Try to find ways to link it to things we already know, to build schema that include the new information, as discussed in “Tinker Toy Traffic.

According to educational research**, this process of intentional learning is one of the major factors that separates struggling students from successful learners. So, next time you are in a boring class, letting the sights and sounds wash over you, counting the seconds until lunch, try asking yourself some questions about the material being covered. Try to build factoids into a schema. You’re stuck there anyway. Might as well make the most of it.

* Photos in this post are protected by a creative commons attribution license:

“BlueSpot” was created by Larisa White, as an inversion of:
“Sol” by Amanda Vivan (www.amandavivan.com)
“Stopwatch” is by Erica Marshall (www.muddyboots.org)

** For those interested in the research behind this post, check out:

Bereiter, Carl & Scardamalia, Marlene. (1989) “Intentional Learning as a Goal of Instruction,” in Robert Glaser & Lauren B. Resnick (Eds.), Learning, Knowing, and Instruction: Essays in Honor of Robert Glasser., Published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 361-390.

Sousa, David A. (2006) How the Brain Learns (3rd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.