I watched this TedTalk on working memory. Peter Doolittle had interesting points on how our working memories work. Working memory is always on while you’re awake, and it’s what enables you to make sense of everything around and also in you. It gives us aspect of time; it’s difficult to imagine world without sensation of time. Without saving that moment a second ago we wouldn’t get feeling of time passing. So working memory is very essential to how we conceive the world. As mentioned in the TedTalk, it’s also crucial to our learning. Doolittle encourages to process new information right away the moment we hear it for the first time in order to remember it longer. Processing can be done by imagining the new thing in pictures, or as I prefer to process information, place it in a narrative. Technically remembering something is lighting up neurons, and processing information increases the act of neurons lighting, and that way the memory is strengthened.
I was in this test in which my working memory was tested. On the computer screen I was shown words one after other with a time delay of two seconds or so. It started with just four words and when the words had flashed in front of me one by one, I had to remember the words and write them down in the order they appeared. In the end of the test there were 16 words to remember. First I hadn’t used any mnemonics, but when it began to be harder and harder to remember the words and they started to slip away, I came up with this idea of placing the words in a kind of story. There was no time to reason a logical story, so I just connected the words with the first conjunctions that I could think of. The connections between the words were sometimes irrational and in addition to relative words, I mentally pictured the story I was inventing. Let’s say the words to remember were: banana, tree, motorway, mirror, water tap, knife, and chair. The story could sound something like this: “A banana tree fell on the motorway. On the motorway there was a mirror in which a water tap could be seen. From the water tap it’s pouring knives that fall on a chair.” Placing the words in a ridiculous little story I was able to remember the words and their appearance still a week after the test. In the second part of the test simple calculations were added between the appearances of the words to make things even more difficult. But for me the second part of the test went actually better than the first because I had more time on coming up with my silly mnemonics. I also had time to repeat the whole “story” from the beginning every time a new word occurred. So the words in the beginning were repeated many times in my head by the end which helped in memorizing them.
As mentioned in the beginning, narratives are not present only in remembering stuff but also in understanding concepts, even complicated ones. Or should I say, especially when trying to understand difficult ideas like meaning of life or the beginning of the universe. Narratives are the way how small children get the introduction to the concepts of the world. Those narratives are also known as fairy tales. In fairy tales we learn incrementally, in small steps, to understand feelings like love or braveness or to deal with fear and death. In addition to the external narratives composed by other beings in books, television, internet or radio, we listen all the time the internal narrative, train of thought so to say. I would say that narratives are deeply tied to the evolution of language itself. When human beings started to communicate feelings and thoughts via language, they started making sense of their surroundings and internal conditions in the form of speak, and by structuring the speak with a beginning and an ending it became a story.
In my opinion, making up narratives is an in-built mechanism us humans have for a purpose of structuring information, and it has developed for thousands of years of evolution. So it’s something you would want to take into consideration if you wanted to understand how your learning could be improved and to actually understand why you think the way you do. It’s starting sound like I’m proposing the reader a philosophical quest to participate in but hold your horses. What it comes to internal narratives, this trick usually works. While listening your daily thoughts, take a moment to consider what they are about. Regard them as story someone else is telling you, and regard yourself as a listener, not someone who is thinking. Now you can consciously valuate your thoughts and consider them. You can then approve or disapprove with them, but there is a twist, there always is. If not focusing, the considering of the thoughts can turn into listening your thoughts again. It’s easier to take distance to an external story, like giving thoughts on a sub text of a news story.
To conclude, narratives can not only be utilized in improving working memory as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, but they can also be a method to understand the working the conscious mind. I’m certain that not everybody has this kind of verbal line of thought that I do, and not everybody would be able to improve their working memory via stories, but I think many people get influenced by TV-series, commercials and news without really understanding the mechanisms of how our minds work.
Text: Otto Koskinen, a student of Independent Study in English course