Thanks For The Memories

Why do we remember some experiences more than others?

Photo of blue sky and sea with waves rolling towards camera
Photo of blue sky and sea with waves rolling towards camera
Bournemouth beach. First sighting of ‘Surfer Boy’.

Bournemouth boasts of its seven miles of sandy beaches. I’m biased, but it is a lovely place to live.

During the summer, tourists and foreign students flock to the town.

One summer a few years ago, my friend from London, Mark, came down to visit for the weekend.

Before the visit, I told him that you can surf down in Bournemouth. And the beaches are nice.

Saturday morning, Mark and I went out for breakfast on the beach. The sun was out, and the sky was blue — everything looked peachy.

We sat outside drinking coffee and admiring the view.

What happened next was like something out of The Truman Show…

A teenage chap on a bike came to a stop just in front of us on the promenade. He wore shorts and T-shirts and had a surfboard under his arm.

He placed his sunglasses on his head, stood the surfboard up against his bike and stared out to sea.

The palm trees in the foreground framed him perfectly.

It was a picture postcard moment.

Mark looked at the surfer. Nodded gently to himself and then asked me: ‘So, people really do surf down in Bournemouth?’

I smiled and replied: ‘Sometimes’.

As my friend took it all in. I looked at the surfer again. As an average middle-aged surfer myself, I noticed a few things about him and his gear:

  • NO wax on the surfboard
  • NO leash attached
  • NO wetsuit
  • He was staring out to a sea with NO waves.

The reality of UK surfing is, if you want waves, you surf during the winter.

If you surf Bournemouth, it’s normally either side of the pier which protects you from the wind. Most of the time it’s cold, grey, windy and wet days.

You need a leash, some wax, and a wetsuit.

But that reality couldn’t be further from the image that was etched onto my friend’s memory.

After a minute or two posing, the surfer placed his sunglasses back on, picked up his surfboard and cycled off.

We did lots of things that weekend. We went over the chain ferry to the Isle of Purbeck and had lunch. We biked in the New Forest.

But surfer boy on the beach is the one thing my friend remembers.

It’s impossible for us to remember every single experience in our memory — we just don’t have the RAM.

How and why did my friend recall that experience?

The brain filter

How do you remember certain things? What gets stored, and what gets trashed? Our brains have interesting ways of storing stuff.

It’s efficient if not quirky.

What we experience and what we remember of that experience are two distinct things. The great Daniel Kahneman explains this elegantly in his TED talk.

“The remembering self is a storyteller… our memory tells us stories… that is what we get to keep from our experiences”.

Just like the image of the surfer riding along the prom with surfboard in-hand. It wasn’t the only experience of that weekend. But it’s the one that was saved as a memory.

Why is this important?

We all talk about ‘designing experiences’. The ‘experience economy’. ‘Customer Experience’. ‘User Experience’.

I read that the amount of folk gifting ‘Experiences’ rather than presents for Christmas rose again this year. Gift Experience company Red Letter Days, reported that demand for experience gifts had almost doubled in the past five years.

The Instagram generation happily share their experiences by a video of an event captured in the ‘you-had-to-be-there’ moment.

The answer to that question is not simple.

Most people remember very little of an experience. Maybe the beginning, parts of the middle and obviously the end.

My Insightful UX colleague, Lee, tells a great story of a user test he was involved in.

It was for a big insurance brand, and he was testing the competition to gather insights.

One of the competitors was a well-known brand. They were not known as insurance specialists, but they were a well-loved brand that just happened to offer insurance.

Whilst testing the website, one participant clearly struggled with the functionality, but, when asked to score their overall experience, said how great it was.

The participant loved the brand.

Their affinity towards it masked the usability issues. They forgot or forgave the bits where they couldn’t click a button or find what they were looking for.

There’s a whole bunch of factors that can affect an experience.

But in this case, in the end, it was brand.

Endings are important.

In Danial Kahneman TED video above, he talks through a fascinating albeit painful experiment to show how important endings are.

The experiment involved measuring a medical procedure called a Colonoscopy.

These graphs are a record of the patient's pain intensity — taken every 6o seconds during the procedure.

Both patient's pain peaks at a similar intensity. The interesting point is WHEN they experienced that peak.

  • Although patient B suffered almost twice as long as patient A. Their pain peaks in the middle and was less intense at the end.
  • Patient A’s record of his pain intensity shows it peaked at the end.

When asked about their memory of the whole procedure, it was much worse for patient A than patient B.

“The peak-end rule is a psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e. its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience.”

Redelmeier, Donald A; Kahneman, Daniel (1996). “Patients’ memories of painful medical treatments: real-time and retrospective evaluations of two minimally invasive procedures”. Pain. 66 (1): 3–8.

Thinking back to the beach…

Was the surfer on the beach the Peak? And the End was that Sunday lunch before my friend took the train home?

We know that endings are important. Beginnings are important too — without them, nothing would happen. But what about the bit in the middle?

Turns out, there’s some science behind that too…

There is something else going on with how we remember experiences. It’s called Serial Position Effect and it combines two other rules: the Primacy Effect and the Recency Effect.

In other words:

How people tend to remember the first and the last items in a series.

The term Serial Position Effect was coined by pioneering German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus. Hermann's theory was that folks remember information more acutely based on WHEN it is given to them.

Back in the day, the second part of the (then) Star Wars trilogy fell into this trap. My pals could never remember what happened in The Empire Strikes Back.

There’s clearly a lot going in the ‘saving’ of an experience as a memory.

Time to look at the hardware and software that does the work…

So, how does the brain store memory? Put simply, there are three types:

  1. Sensory memory — picking-up stimuli from your senses like a taste or a smell which is then forgotten or saved to the next type of memory…
  2. Working/Short-term memory — consciously remembering something for about 3o seconds before it is forgotten or saved to the next stage…
  3. Long term memory — where it’s all saved and stored — although you can’t remember everything that’s stored here.

The irony of Long Term Memory is that you can only hold so much of it in your mind at once. Once remembered it transferred into a short-term memory which as we’ve seen, has a data limit!

Back in 1956, a psychologist called George Miller wrote a paper called ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.’ Shame he couldn’t make the title easier to remember.

Miller got very specific about exactly how much memory we can take. Five to nine pieces of data.

Some people can remember a lot more

In extreme circumstances, the brain can retain huge amounts. Known as Acquired Savant Syndrome

People can develop an amazing ability as an effect from an unfortunate Traumatic Brain Injury.

Read this story about patient Jason who prior to a violent mugging, had struggled with maths at school.

“Savant Syndrome, which is exceptionally rare even in its ‘normal’ form, is a condition in which an individual possesses a skill so extraordinary that he or she is able to perform seemingly impossible mathematical, linguistic, or artistic tasks.”

Brain space and speed

We have approximately a hundred billion neurons in our brains. But only around a billion are used in long-term memory storage. They’re called Pyramidal Cells.

Assuming that a neuron could store a single “unit” of memory — if we tried to recall everything our brains would melt.

It’s not hard drive space, but the speed of download that is the issue.

During any given day, our brains get bombarded with words, images, smells, and sounds. All of that data we’re ‘experiencing’ arrives quicker than our memory system can save to disk.

Not everything we remember is true. The fact is: sometimes we make it up.

Our memory ‘assembles the parts’

What chunks of the story are humans remembering? Can you remember an experience you shared with someone yet they have a completely different account of it?

“We are conscious of the whole and not the parts that make it up,”

Allen Snyder is the director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney. He ran an experiment with his colleagues. He asked them to memorize a long shopping list with items like:

  • Steering wheel
  • Windshield wipers
  • Headlights
  • Etc.

“People were terrible at remembering the list,” Snyder says, but they told him he had said “car,” when, in fact, he had not. “They assembled the parts.” Read more about the story here

We put words together to give them meaning. But they need to be in the right order…

Logical sequences help us remember

How we order the words we use can affect how easily they’re remembered. Will Storr’s brilliant book, The Science of Storytelling delves into this.

The theory says that as soon as we’re born we start to make sense of words before we get to of the sentence. So the way words are sequenced is important.

Look at these two sentences. Which one is more effective?

1. Jane gave a Kitten to her Dad

2. Jane gave her Dad a Kitten

Sentence 1 is the ‘real-world’ order that we’d expect. As we read the sentence, we can ‘picture’ Jane, the Kitten, and her Dad. It feels like a logical sequence.

Spelling Mnemonics are another simple example of how we can memorize things. Here’s one I still remember from school — lord help me:

ARITHMETIC: A Rat In The House May Eat The Ice Cream.

Just like Jane, the Kitten, and her Dad, I used to visualize The Rat, the house and obviously the Ice Cream.

Total recall

What about people who remember everything? This is sometimes known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, or HSAM.

But there’s not a lot of those folks around. So unlikely to be representative of an audience I guess.

How can we learn from all of this? I’m no scientist but from my experience of research projects, I’d say this…

People recall in broad, simplistic themes.

Errr… not exactly earth-shattering is it? Sorry.

Recently, I was asking a participant what they could recall after a five-second glance at a homepage.

I run this test a lot. You probably do too. Most of the time, the result is underwhelming.

A lot of clients look at me in disbelief when I tell them the results,

Most of the time, participants remember one or maybe two things

Typically this would be a picture in the header image or a word, phrase or colour. Sometimes they remember things that weren’t even there. They were as we said above, ‘assembling the parts’.

Of course, that’s not really an ‘experience’ as such. But it does go to show they forget some what we think would be obvious details and make others up.

An impossible question to answer but just like the surfer on the beach, it comes down to a lot less than you’d imagine.

Recently my friend, and I met up. Here we are in London. I’m happy to report that he mentioned surfer boy almost unprompted.

George’s friend Mark and George sat down with City of London in background
George’s friend Mark and George sat down with City of London in background
Mark and George in London.

I write about insights, design thinking and digital miscellany. Subscribe

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