Recalling the bizarre

Recalling the bizarre – memory research

Vincent Bozzi

Recalling the bizarre

Memory experts have long suggested using “bizarre’ imagery as a technique to remember long lists. If the first three words on a list are cat, star and doughnut, for example, one might form the image of a cat in space eating a huge star, shaped like a doughnut.

Though it seems quite reasonable that the odd would be easier to recall than the usual, it turns out that just the opposite is true: Plausible images help us to remember better than do weird ones.

Psychologist Neal E. A. Kroll and colleagues asked 24 college students to memorize 56 pairs of words by using a mental image of the two words interacting with one another. The images were suggested by either a plausible or bizarre phrase following each pair. The word pair “ant, comb,’ for example, was followed by a plausible image such as “A large, black ant crawls in and out of the teeth of a plastic comb’ or a bizarre image such as “A large, black ant carefully combs its hair with a plastic comb.’

After the students formed all their images, they were shown the first word of each pair and asked to recall the other. Experts’ advice to the contrary, when bizarre images were used only 78 percent of the words were remembered, compared with 87 percent of the words linked to plausible images. Further, the bizarre images were more difficult to form in the first place, taking an average of 1.2 seconds longer.

But are bizarre images easier to retain over time? No. A week later the students were still doing slightly better with the plausible images, although their accuracy had slipped to 68 percent for the plausible versus 65 percent for the bizarre.

The most surprising part of the study is that, when asked, all but three of the students thought that they remembered the words linked to bizarre images better, even though this was clearly not the case.

When confronted with this, most had no idea why they thought that they remembered the bizarre images better, but a few said that the bizarre images they did remember seemed to just “pop’ into their heads so quickly that they overshadowed their memories for plausible ones.

The researchers say that students simply “seem to remember that the image was bizarre, even when they cannot remember enough about the image to allow them to correctly recall the second [word] of the pair. Perhaps this feeling of knowing is somehow related to the tip-of-the-tongue phenomena.’

COPYRIGHT 1986 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group