Design Bite #2 — How Memory Works

by Ali Maiorano | December 19, 2016 | More Articles

Design Bites is a collection of articles on different topics that help us expand our knowledge as designers. Each design bite represents a unique topic that relates to different fields of study such as cognitive science, philosophy, or ethnography, and are pulled from specific sources such as books, articles, or podcasts. Their main goal is not only to help us learn new concepts but also to be actionable and useful in our day to day design process.

How Memory Works

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

Daniel J. Levitin

Illustration by Ali Maiorano

At any given time, parts of our brain may be off-line recouping energy. As long as we aren’t calling on the offline parts of our brain, we don’t notice the inconsistency. The offline moments only become apparent when an item or thought has been misplaced, bringing awareness to the gaps in our memory.

One can understand the mechanics of forgetfulness when it is applied to the four parts of the attentional system: mind wandering mode, central executive mode, the attentional filter and the attentional switch. These modes will be described in a later Design Bite, but for now we only need to understand that the brain can shift into mind wandering mode without us realizing it. While in this mode, we can do things without knowing it because our mind is focused on something else. Walking into a house and setting down our wallet while thinking about the day is an example of this. Once we switch back into central executive mode, we are less likely to remember where we put our wallet if we chose a place different than our normal routine. Therefore, many things get lost when we are not present in the moment we put them down.

Externalizing Memory

One of the ways we can cope with forgetfulness is to externalize our memory. Systems like key hooks, cabinets, bookshelves, and calendars help us externalize the effort of remembering. These objects become locations that we center our habits around. Keys go on a keyhook, a wallet rests on a side table, events go on a calendar. The more we can externalize memory through physical records out in the world, the less we must rely on our precise memory.

Memory Retrieval

We best remember experiences that are extremely distinctive and unique or things that have a strong emotional component. When we try to remember something, we activate the same neurons that were involved in the original experience. However, the act of remembering is imperfect because the neurons are weak and degrade over time, which leads to a representation of what occurred. Memory is not only replaying, it is also rewriting. This explains why stories tend to evolve over time. The mind is rewriting small details of a memory, altering it each time we retell the story.

Memory retrieval requires our brains to sift through multiple, competing instances to pick out the ones we are trying to recollect. The brain organizes similar memories into categorical bundles. Similar events are retrieved at once, forming a generic mixture that we must then sift through. Recalling a specific memory in this instance is difficult because there are many to choose from. A unique event doesn’t have any competition so is easily distinguishable, making it easier to remember.

Memory is also highly influenced by emotion. Emotionally important events are the experiences we need to remember to learn from. From an evolutionary perspective, these emotional memories aided our survival so our brains make them easier to pull up.

Memory Patterns

There are a few memory patterns that are useful to know when designing for people:
Primacy effect of memory:
We best remember the first entry on a list.
Recency effect: We tend to remember the most recent item but not as well as the first.
Spreading Activation: When remembering groups of words, we remember themes rather than specific words. For example, when presenting words related to the idea of sleep the word sleep becomes activated in your brain. This is a false memory or an example of memory modification.

Memory Modification

Memories can be manipulated. If you recall a happy memory while being sad, the mood at the time of retrieval can change the mood of the memory, turning it slightly sad. When you call for a memory, you are entering an edit mode where your current mood and environment can influence the emotional tone, interpretation of events and even beliefs of a certain event that took place. But when you ‘save’ the memory again and place it back, you can inadvertently modify it, which can bias how and what you recall the next time you bring up that memory. Over time, incremental changes can lead to the creation of false memories or events.

Applications in Design: False Memory in Social Networks

Facebook provides us with an interesting case study for memory. It is a container for personal interaction, ultimately becoming a library for memories. A person’s wall contains a history of what that person did, but is editable so he can actively curate his image. A recent psychological study (Bjorkland) found that a fifth of Facebook users between the ages of 18–24 lie about their jobs, relationships and holidays on the site. These embellishments or subtle exaggerations create false memories of one’s past. In time, the brain modifies real memories to be more in line with the embellished memory.

This is not a new phenomenon, but the prevalence of social media provides more opportunity for false memory to happen than in prior generations. Psychologists are concerned that social media has the potential to undermine one’s real, lived lives and memories. “When this starts to happen, feelings of guilt and distaste towards ourselves can create a cognitive trap of alienation and possibly even a sense of disconnection and paranoia” says Richard Sherry, a psychologist and founding member of the Society for Neuropsychoanalysis. A digital amnesia emerges, starting with the desire to impress others with the potential to culminate in larger, more dangerous social psychoses.

As more research is done, we will develop a richer understanding of the impact these systems have on us. In the meantime, we should be aware of the delicate nature of memory. It is natural for our brain to forget details and rewrite memories the further we get from when they happened. We should create designs that support cognition by externalizing information in searchable databases and leveraging various memory patterns, like primacy and recency effect, that ease memory retrieval when necessary.