Our brains are quite amazing. They’re the most complicated organs in our bodies and at the same time, the fastest and most complex computers we know of, but they have one major weakness – or bug – that nobody seems to be able to fix: their storage system, our memory.
No matter what tricks we employ, our memory fails us in the most unexpected moments, depending (sometimes) on how rested we are, how much attention we’re paying and a handful of other factors. Other times, the failures are just random, and not only we can’t remember the one thing that we need to recall in a particular situation, but instead we remember something completely different, unrelated and usually useless for that particular situation.
So can we ever hope to trick our memory into giving us the information we need when we need it? A study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology offers a fresh perspective on the matter and suggest an unusual strategy: drawing.
The team of researchers, led by psychologist Jeffrey D. Wammes, recruited groups of students and ran seven different trials of essentially the same experiment on them. The scientists started with a list of 80 simple words—all nouns and all relatively easy to draw, such as balloon, fork, kite, pear, peanut and shoe.
Then, a random series of 30 of those words were flashed on a screen along with instructions either to draw the object or write down its name. After the 30 words, they would perform a filler task — listening to a series of tones and identifying whether each was low-, high-, or medium-pitched. The filler task had nothing to do with the study itself, its only role being to get the subjects’ minds off of what they had just done, so that the memories could either consolidate or vanish. Finally, they would write down a list of as many of the objects from the first test as they could.
In most of the trials, it took the students about 40 seconds to draw their picture, but in one they did it in just four seconds. In another variation, they were asked to either draw the object, write the word or, as a third option, list its descriptive characteristics. In another, the third option would be to visualize the object. In yet another, they were asked to write the word as elaborately and decoratively as possible. In all variations, the results was the same: drawing the object was the subjects’ first choice.
As the abstract of the paper reads, “together these experiments indicate that drawing enhances memory relative to writing, across settings, instructions, and alternate encoding strategies”, therefore next time you want something memorized, draw it if you have the chance! It might just be the trick that does the job.