Dory and Our Tricky Memory

My Funniest Memory

I spent the summer after I graduated from college on a three-week backpacking trip of Southern France. This was before 9-11, before internet, cell phones, and social media. I went to the library an extensively researched my trip. Everything was ready – hostels, train schedules, itinerary, castles – I was prepared for anything.

Except for the public restrooms.

Nothing could have prepared me for the public bathrooms in France. One place, you had to pay someone coins to enter the bathroom, and then pay someone else coins to exit. But the most unexpected bathroom came in the form of a giant port-o-potty type structure at some of the train stations in more remote places.

It was a tall blue rectangle, two or three times as large as a US port-o-potty. You had to pay to open it. While I traveled to France alone, I met other solo travelers with whom I would team up for a few days at a time. On this occasion, I was with another girl, a Canadian, who had never seen a contraption like this either.

We thought we would be clever and save a Euro by “tricking” the system. We paid our coin to open the door, and I went in to use the facilities. It was equally strange inside, with a hole in the floor, handle bars around the hole, and smaller holes surrounding the large hole. Not one to be freaked out by new experiences and strange bathrooms, I did my business. I then opened the door to let in my travel companion so that she could do her business without putting in another coin.

What we didn’t know is that this port-o-potty was actually a bidet.

A restroom that uses a spray of water from beneath to help keep everything clean. When I put in the coin to open the door, we turned it on. I used the restroom, then opened the door again, setting the device into step two. When my friend entered and shut the door, it went into step three: clean. The lights were turned off, the door locked, and water sprayed up from the bottom of the floor, flooding the port-o-potty with my friend inside. She was locked in there for a few moments in the dark and the wet until the water subsided and it unlocked. She came out laughing, wet, a little dazed, but not worse for wear.

We learned that day not to ‘cheat’ the French port-o-potty system. And to this day, it’s one of my favorite stories from my France trip.

The only problem is that it didn’t happen.

I heard the story from a fellow traveler while I was in France. It was her warning to use those strange restrooms properly. Perhaps it didn’t happen to her, either. Maybe someone made it up a long time previously to deter foreigners from cheating France out of some publicly-earned coins.

When I got home from France that summer, I told that story to someone. But I changed one thing – I told it as if it had happened to me. I got howls of laughter, requests to tell it again, and reinforcement to make it into something bigger than it was.

Then the strangest thing happened – I started remembering it as if it had happened to me. I forgot that I had not experienced those events myself and told the story so much that the events became lodged in my own memory.

This went on for at least 15 years. Somewhere in my 30’s, as I was retelling this classic story of my France adventures, something clicked. I don’t know what it was, but a realization dawned on me that I had not actually experienced this story. Somehow, my memories righted themselves and I could see the girl at the hostel telling this story, then myself turning it into my own story when I came home.

But for over a decade, I really truly believed these events had happened to ME.

Dory – The Best Memory Example

Memory is a tricky thing. Dory can attest to that. The beloved blue fish cannot retain memories for longer than a few seconds, creating frustrating, albeit endearing, exchanges between the people close to her.

But something happens toward the end of the first movie we see her in, “Finding Nemo.” The repetition of seeing Marlan, of saying the Sydney address out loud, of talking about Nemo over and over and over again, causes her to remember things.

Dory’s memory kicks in at the end of her search for Nemo, when Marlan abandons his quest after learning, presumably, that he is too late to save his son. Her sadness at loosing what has now become a regular fixture in her life, contrasted with her happiness at having Marlan there as a familiar comfort, triggers what has now been transferred to long term memory.

In her own movie, her memory is triggered by all those wonderful tricks that we love so well – songs, repetitive phrases, and familiar places. Her ‘short-term’ memory may be off line, but her long-term storage in doing just fine.

Our Memory Tricks

How do we create memory? That’s a riddle people have been trying to solve for centuries. Memory as a construct, was introduced in the mid-1800’s by a psychologist named Eddinghouse. He was curious to know how much he could remember, and so experimented on himself. What he found has implications for our lives, our own memories, and our teaching.

Since then, memory specialists have experimented with remembering facts, remembering faces, experiences, words, beliefs, events. They have found some startling results.

Memory is, as I demonstrated in my opening story, fallible. We don’t remember life in clear black-and-white facts. And speaking of facts, we retain less than 50% of facts we learn.

How many times do we joke as teachers that kids will remember the time you promised them a popsicle party, but completely forget the entire math lesson of 30 minutes ago? That is because of the character of our memory.

As we see with Dory, there are a few things that make some memories ‘stick’ more others. As we see with my story, though, this can happen for true events and facts, but it can also happen for completely fabricated facts and events. The tricks are:

  1. Memories have emotional value.
  2. Memories have ‘place and process stamps.’
  3. Memories are made stronger with repetition.

One of the reasons my French bidet story went from ‘a cool story I heard in France’ to ‘something cool that happened to me in France’ was the emotional reaction I received. It made people happy. So it made me happy. People laughed, they asked for it again, I was positively reinforced with good emotions around this story. So it became true memory.

“Emotions filter the nature and accuracy of what is remembered.”

Robert Sapolsky, “Behave” (2017, pg 28)

Another reason this story became a memory was it’s connection to familiar places and processes. It was a story about going to the bathroom. Something everyone can relate to, something that happens multiple times a day to every person in the world.

And the final reason that I “remembered” my bidet tale as true was the fact that I repeated it over and over as my own story.

Memory in the Classroom

Our students’ memories work in much the same way as Dory’s. So how do we teach in a way that our students will remember? How do we get those facts, events, and lessons to stick when it seems that every 30 seconds they forget everything?

Here are three tips to make learning memorable.

1. Attach emotional importance to the learning.

This doesn’t mean everything has to be ‘fun.’ But it does mean that if students are ‘enjoying’ themselves by being emotionally involved, the things they are learning have a greater chance of lasting. Conversely, if they are ‘hating’ what and how they are learning, the chances for remembering the learning plummet. Instead, they remember the negative emotional connection to the topic. For example, my ninth grade geometry teacher posted our grades publicly. I had been a straight-A student before that class, but struggled to get a barely passing C-. I don’t remember a bit of geometry, but I do remember that the humiliation of being a star student who is failing in math created in me a hatred for math that lasted into adulthood.

So, how can you create excitement and novelty in a science experiment? Or, what reading material can you offer that aligns to a student’s favorite things? In short, how can you bring positive emotions into your teaching?

2. Connect learning to familiar places and processes.

This speaks to the ‘place and process stamps’ that memory holds. The best example of this is your drive to work. Let’s say that you get up, go through your morning routine, get into the car, and start driving down the road to take you to work. But then, you realize it’s Saturday. You aren’t going to work. You’re going to meet someone for brunch, or you’re running your weekend errands, or you’re supposed to be going somewhere in the complete opposite direction in which you are driving.

This happens because the familiar processes and places of your morning routine creates a stamp in your memory. Before you think about it, you’re doing what you’ve been doing every day.

Classroom learning can have place and process stamps, too. You can connect a new and/or difficult concept to a familiar idea. You can create a literal place in your room in which a certain learning happens (i.e., a reading corner that makes reading enjoyable and memorable at the same time). You can create a routine for a certain math concept, or a writing process, or a way to make and test a hypothesis. Those places and processes will ‘stamp’ the memory of the learning in your students’ brains.

3. Repetition, repetition, repetition

Once you have inserted emotional importance and routine processes into your teaching, all you have to do to increase the likelihood of remembering is rinse and repeat.

Why do commercial jingles stick in your head?
– They try to emote a positive feeling (like the happiness of receiving a diamond necklace)
– They happen during a routine process (like watching your favorite show).
– They repeat (like hearing the same jingle on the radio, on TV, from your children’s tablet, on every single commercial break, etc.).

We could take a cue from jingle writers. The repetition of facts, of processes, of emotional experiences will ensure that the things you want your students to learn goes into long-term memory storage. They will remember the formula to the Pythagorean equation. They will remember the parts of a sentence, and how to write a paragraph. They will remember why a volcano made of baking soda and vinegar explodes.

Using these memory tricks, if Dory can remember, even the most hopeless of your students can too.

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