Fables or Thrillers? Why some things are harder to remember than others

Some things are just easy to remember, whilst others are much harder. I was listening to an audiobook yesterday about consciousness. It gave a really fascinating view of ‘the democracy of self’, talking about how low level ‘zombie’ systems constantly carry out their work and how the overarching presence of consciousness draws all this together and gives us the view of ‘self’, of the ‘person’ overseeing the whole show. Or something like that. Because, whilst it all made perfect sense as i listened, i knew that, today, i would remember that it all made sense and seemed clear, but the details would elude me. Why? Because i’m not a neurologist: because it’s just a bit beyond me.

I thought to myself that it was a great book, from a few comments in the text, where he referred to an experiment he did in the seventies, the chap that wrote it must have spent a good part of a career or a lifetime exploring and mastering his subject. Also, clearly, a great communicator. Presumably he understood the concepts and processes at a deeply technical level, but also had the communication skills to translate them, with appropriate anecdotes and stories, into something that i would understand.

So why couldn’t i remember it today? Well, broadly for two reasons: firstly, there was simply so much that was new to me and, secondly, i don’t use this information day to day, it’s not directly anchored to my everyday needs.

There are some facts that i took away from the book: 15% of women have a fourth type of colour receptor in their eye meaning that they can differentiate between colours that look the same to me or 85% of you (if you’re female). That’s a fact. I can remember that. It’s concise and interesting enough to have anchored itself in my mind.

Similarly, the concept of zombie systems was easy enough to capture. But the detailed description of how they all came together to form ‘self’ was quite involved. I retain the concept, at a rather high level, but the detail has gone. It’s not something i need to know or indeed am likely to talk about day to day. There was simply so much wonderful information in the book that i was able to be intellectually satisfied that, at least for a short moment i understood it, but there was never a realistic chance that i would take it all away.

There is a significance here in learning design: how much are we designing an engaging and entertaining experience, how much are we aiming to ensure that people can take information away and do something with it?

It’s like watching a great thriller. At the time, it makes sense, but if you asked me to relate the plot of Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy, i wouldn’t remember the details. Great stories are engaging, but we need to be interested in simple stories, stories that the learner can retell, can retain. Fables more than thrillers.

You can read ‘Incognito‘ by David Eagleman if you want to experience the beautiful but complex story for yourself.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Complexity, Concentration, Concepts, Curiosity, Learning, Neurology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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