In his book, 100 little psychological traits for understanding your brain, Alain Lieury unlocks the secrets to our minds and memory functions. Here are Doctissimo’s top five to help you understand your memory.
Memory: Why do you never forget how to ride a bike?
Everyone knows that once you’ve learned to ride a bike, you never need to learn again. In fact, the memory of all your sensorimotor learning, (riding a bike, swimming, driving etc.), is particularly strong as this occupies a different part of the brain to the memory of images and sounds. We call this the procedural memory. It is the cerebellum especially which retains these automatic movements. According to Alain Lieury, “This part of the memory is so solid because it requires millions of repetitions in order to to be built in the first place, which will ingrain these actions. Lack of practice is responsible for reduced performance over the long term (as with playing the piano, for example).”
Memory: How many words can we remember?
Take a look at how thick dictionaries are, and this will make you realise how many more words you can still learn. Oxford English Dictionary, for example, contains around 218,632 words (171,479 currently in use and 47,156 that are considered obsolete). “Children know on average 9000 words at the end of primary school”, Alain Lieury illustrates his point. “We all know about 26,000 words at the end of secondary school at 16, and continue learning words after this in sixth form and in higher education. An educated adult probably has a vocabulary of between 30,000 and 50,000 words.”
But it should be pointed out that there is a gap between what we know and what we use. A study in Strasbourg showed that vocabulary used in everyday speech is made up of only 8000 words on average!
Memory: Why are words on the tip of your tongue sometimes?
How many times do you have something just on the tip of your tongue; that feeling that whatever word you are looking for is right there, you just can’t put your finger on it? The cause behind this is connected to the fact that words exist in our memories in two separate sections: Lexical memory: which is a glossary of words we know how to spell and how to pronounce, but don’t have any meaning attached Semantic memory: which contains the definition of these terms
Of course the two are linked, and one word in the lexical memory might correspond to one or more definitions in the semantic memory. “However, in most people, the semantic memory is more efficient, and definitions can be recalled most easily”, Alain Lieury points out. Sometimes, the brain retrieves the meaning of the word we want in the semantic memory without finding the word in the lexical memory. The idea is there, but the “packaging” is missing, so it is impossible to express it! Alain Lieury suggests a method for getting past this: “Go through the alphabet in your head, and the word should spring to mind when you get to its letter.”
Memory: Are we influenced by subliminal messages?
Do the images placed in advertisements really give us instant, irrepressible urges? Popular belief has it that each image in a cinema advertisement will encourage more fizzy drink and popcorn sales through subliminal messages. “But in reality, this idea has absolutely no basis!” Alain Liery states. Actually, a film with 24 frames per second (25 for television) means images are there for 40 milliseconds (ms). However, for all images which last less than 100 ms, it produces a phenomenon in our visual system called “masking”: our brain mixes the images. An isolated image is therefore a lot stronger than a succession of similar images. Moreover, if you add the text “Vote so and so”, you will need around 250 ms for the brain to register just one word… impossible for our minds to decode a phrase in 40 ms!
Memory: How far back can our first memories go?
Some of us have incredibly long memories going back to recollections of nursery, while others can’t even remember primary school and can only remember back to things that happened when they were seven years old. In reality, most people begin to store memories between the ages of three and four. This can be explained by the development of the memory, and especially by the gradual acquisition of language, which allows you to put memory into words, essential for memorising things. “Before they know how to talk, children have a sensory memory, but this is very fragile. If there are no words with which to rebuild these early memories, to contextualise them, it will disappear” Alain Lieury explains.
17th May 2012