Memory: 10 Fascinating Quirks Everyone Should Know

I am most fascinated by the “Google effect”. Read on…

As the great psychologist William James said:

“If we remembered everything we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.”

Here are ten interesting quirks of memory which provide a better insight into what makes us remember — or forget.

1. Context is king

What we can remember partly depends on the situation and mental state we are in at the time.

This is because our memories work by association.

The context itself can refer to all kinds of things: some things are easier to remember in a certain place, others when we experience specific smells, others when we are in particular emotional states.

One striking study which demonstrates this had deep sea divers learning lists of words either 15ft underwater or on dry land (Godden & Baddeley, 1975).

It turned out that when they learned words underwater, they remembered 32% of them when tested underwater, but only 21% when tested on the beach.

Of course our memories are far more complex than lists of words: many will have all kinds of contextual hooks, but the study neatly makes the point that for memory, context is very important.

2. Google remembers for you

If you’ve ever worried about the effect the internet is having on your mind, then this aspect of memory would seem to fuel those worries.

The ‘Google effect’ is the finding that we tend to forget things which we know we can look up on the internet.

In a study by Sparrow et al. (2011) participants were manipulated into thinking they could either retrieve items they were supposed to recall from a computer, or that the items had been irrevocably deleted.

The results showed that people’s memory was worse for things they thought they could look up.

Crucially, though, despite the fact that people’s memory was worse when they could access the information, they were better at knowing where to find it.

Given that you can look most stuff up on the internet, doesn’t that mean we’ll eventually forget almost everything?

Lead author of the study, Betsy Sparrow, doesn’t see this as the beginning of the end, rather a ‘reorganisation of the way we remember things’:

“Our brains rely on the Internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.”

So it’s not a step backwards, but an evolution in how memory works.

3. Negative emotions fade faster

This is a simple — and wonderful — quirk of how memory works.

It’s the fact that, on average, negative emotions are forgotten quicker than positive.

A typical study asks people to write about things that have happened to them over a period of months.

Then they are asked to recall these events up to five years later.

A curious thing happens for most (non-depressed) people: the negative things are forgotten at a higher rate than the positive.

Psychologists aren’t exactly sure why this happens, but it seems to be part of our natural psychological immune system which helps protect against life’s inevitable knocks.

4. Deep processing

This is a very obvious and intuitive quirk of memory, but nonetheless continually ignored by generations of students and others who are trying to learn.

It’s the fact that the deeper a fact or memory is processed, the greater the chance of it being recalled later.

A classic study had people trying to memorise a list of words (Craik & Tulving, 1975).

Some were told to focus on surface details, like the sound of the words or how they were written. Another group, though, had to process the meaning.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that those who thought about the meaning of the words did the best on a subsequent test.

And yet, students and other learners continue to revise by rote or by just focusing on surface details.

Looking for deeper connections is the way to more strongly fix memories in the mind.

5. Memory distortion

When a memory is ‘misattributed’ some original true aspect of a memory becomes distorted through time, space or circumstances.

Some examples that have been studied in the lab are:

Misattributing the source of memories. In one study participants with ‘normal’ memories regularly made the mistake of thinking they had acquired a trivial fact from a newspaper, when actually the experimenters had supplied it (Schacter, Harbluk, & McLachlan, 1984).
Misattributing a face to the wrong context. Studies have shown that memories can become blended together, so that faces and circumstances are merged.
Memory expert Daniel Schacter suggests that misattributions may actually be useful to us (Schacter, 1999).

The ability to extract, abstract and generalise our experience enables us to apply lessons we’ve learnt in one domain to another.

6. The Zeigarnik effect

The Zeigarnik effect is named after a Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, who noticed an odd thing while sitting in a restaurant in Vienna.

The waiters seemed only to remember orders which were in the process of being served. When completed, the orders evaporated from their memory.

Zeigarnik went back to the lab to test out a theory about what was going on.

She asked participants to do twenty or so simple little tasks in the lab, like solving puzzles and stringing beads (Zeigarnik, 1927). Except some of the time they were interrupted half way through the task.

Afterwards she asked them which activities they remembered doing.

People were about twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they’d been interrupted than those they completed.

The Zeigarnik effect, therefore, is that incomplete tasks are remembered better than completed ones.

It’s pretty easy to see why that might be a useful quirk of memory.

7. Childhood amnesia

Most adults can’t remember much, if anything, from before the age of three.

It’s what Sigmund Freud first termed ‘childhood amnesia’.

A new study of childhood memory reveals that childhood amnesia sets in at around the age of seven (Bauer & Larkina, 2013).

The results showed that between 5 and 7 years-of-age, the children could remember between 63% and 72% of the events they’d first recalled at the age of three.

However, by the age of 8 or 9, the children only remembered about 35% of the events.

When children are young the hippocampus–a part of the brain crucial to memory–is still undergoing neurogenesis: new neurons are constantly being produced.

Until this process is complete we find it hard to lay down long-term autobiographical memories.

8. The reminiscence bump

While we may remember little from before around the age of seven, the teenage and early adult years are a completely different matter.

Between about 10 and 30-years-old, most adults experience some of the biggest moments in their lives, all in relatively quick succession.

There’s education, puberty, falling in love, deciding on a career, getting married, having a first child and so on.

While life’s later years can be full of happiness and fulfilment, it’s in these two decades when most people experience the largest changes to their identities, goals and life circumstances.

Naturally, then, people tend to remember this period most intensely — that is the ‘reminiscence bump’, named after the bump on the graph of people’s retrieval of autobiographical memories (in red below).


9. The consistency bias

New experiences don’t fall on a blank slate; we don’t merely record the things we see around us.

Instead everything we do, have done to us, think or experience, is affected by past thoughts and things that have already happened to us.

One strong psychological drive humans have is to be consistent.

This, then, can lead to a consistency bias: we have a tendency to reconstruct the past to make it more compatible with our current world-view.

For example, as people get older, on average, they get politically more conservative.

Despite this people report always having had roughly the same views (Markus, 1986).

10. The recall effect

Many memories which have the scent of authenticity may turn out to be misremembered, if not totally fictitious events, if only we could check.

But, does the long passage of time warp the memory, or is there some more active process that causes the change?

In one experiment participants had memories laid down in a carefully controlled way to test this out (St. Jacques & Schacter, 2013).

The results showed that people’s memories were both enhanced and distorted by the process of recall. This shows that merely recalling a memory is enough to strengthen it.

This is one aspect of the fact that memory is an active, reconstructive process; recalling something is not a neutral act, it strengthens that memory in comparison to the others.

A good memory

Hopefully these ‘quirks’ of memory help to underline the fact that some of what we think of as the disadvantages of memory are really strengths.

As the great psychologist William James said:

“If we remembered everything we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.”



The Alpha Numeric Spectrum: numerical and phonetic codes to memorize numbers and recall them with ease.

I have studied memory techniques to improve my memory and be able to recall things with ease. Just recently, I came across the work of Dave Farrow and purchased his Millionaire Mind audio-book program. Dave Farrow is the Guinness world record holder for being able to memorize 59 decks of cards in order. That’s about 3,000 cards so to me that was very impressive and worthy of recognition. In his program he teaches you to improve your memory using techniques that he had created, some from other notable people and others that are centuries old. He teaches you to remember words, how to spell them correctly, remember speeches, languages, recall someone’s name and numbers. Though Mr. Farrow’s techniques are extensive they’re made easier for people like you and me. I am going to cover the basics of the alpha numeric spectrum in this post as I understand it but will not elaborate on how to use it because I am just starting to apply the code and getting used to link things using colors and sound. I am in no way claiming that I am an expert in this field. There is a lot to learn, to practice and that is exactly what I am doing.

The Alpha numeric spectrum is used to link up information in a multitude of ways. You can use sounds and colors to link words, numbers or whatever you want to remember and then recall it with ease. It takes time to grasp all this information but once you understand how to use the code and memorize the colors and sounds you will be able to remember things , learn new languages, improve your education whether in school or at work. I particularly like to explore to use the alpha numeric spectrum to learn new languages. I am fascinated by languages! Of course I can make more use of my memory and be able to recall things with ease like remembering people’s names for a change.

Throughout the course there are key things to remember that will help with memorization and aid me to “paint a picture” of what I want to remember.

  1. Try to create a picture or movie in your mind with the first things you think of you want to remember or associate. Don’t worry about creating the perfect picture. Then connect that picture with the next one until you have your own wild story about that foreign phrase you want to remember or preparing you for a test.
  2. Make what you’re picturing in your mind big, larger than life; make it look ridiculous, illogical. Your logical thinking will get in the way for sure. My advice is to think like a child, let your imagination loose, be creative and go wild creating the association that first comes into your mind. The reason for this is that with time and practice, you’ll be more creative and will imagine things better without worrying whether it makes sense or not.
  3. Include yourself in the picture. Make a movie, colorful, outrageous, illogical but so vivid that will stick in your mind. This is paramount!
  4. Make a “peg” list of the phonetic alphabet and the numeric spectrum for easy remembering. Do your research online for more information or create your own system…whatever works for you.


The Alpha Numeric Spectrum

1. ONE is for RED. Imagine a red single pole, a coat hanger, a single tree or whatever you want to use to represent the number one. Now imagine your object covered in ketchup, red paint, blood whatever you want to use that will stick in your mind. Make it big, ridiculous, but vivid as if it was real. The phonetic code for one is: T, D. You can picture red pole making the lines of the “T” or a tree in the shape of a “T” and covered in ketchup. Let your imagination run.

2. TWO is for ORANGE. Imagine yourself in the kitchen and you’re about put couple oranges in your brand new juicer which by the way is in the shape of a number 2. Can you picture that? Juice coming out of the top part of the number 2. Again you can use whatever you can think of just make it so vivid that it sticks. The phonetic code for two: N. Imagine the two vertical lines of the “N” bright orange and oozing orange juice. Whatever works for you? I am using the same picture that Dave Farrow created here.

3. THREE is for YELLOW. Picture a lemon in one hand, bright yellow and a number three in your other hand. The number three has three lines that end in spikes and you stick those spikes on the lemon. Imagine as if it was real. The phonetic code for three: M. Imagine the number three you just stuck on the lemon that has three lines, make it fit in your mind or try something else.

4. FOUR is for GREEN: Imagine a huge hedge in the shape of the number four. At the top of the hedge there is a golfer and he yells “four”. The phonetic code for four is R. Picture the golfer yelling ” fourrrrr”. That’s how Mr. Farrow described and it got stuck in my mind.

5. FIVE is for BLUE. Imagine a swimming pool shaped in the number 5. The phonetic code for five is: L. Imagine a blue L or using Dave’s creativity, the word ” aLive” or picture something with L5 and blue.

6. SIX is for PURPLE. Imagine a giant purple monster covered in grapes. Or a house in the shape of the number 6 and grapes are falling off the walls. Got that? The phonetic code for purple is: J,SH,CH. You can imagine the giant purple monster throwing grapes at you with one hand and with the other making a gesture to SHush you.

7. SEVEN is for BROWN. Imagine a huge hockey stick (resembles somewhat a 7) that fell in the mud and it’s covered in brown stuff. Remember, use whatever works for you. The phonetic code for brown is: K. How can you associate “K” with a hockey stick?  The bend of the letter “K” resembles somewhat a hockey stick or a number 7. You can picture yourself swinging the stick and making the sound “K” as you hit the imaginary puck.

8. EIGHT is for SILVER. Imagine a vast field and in the middle of it there is this giant silver building in the shape of a figure eight or the V8 emblem supersized. The phonetic code for silver is: V,F. Imagine the silver V8 emblem like a monster, creating havoc or the silver building being hit by the wind and making the sound “ffff”.

9. NINE is for GOLD. A gold building shaped like a nine. The phonetic code for Gold is: P. “P” somewhat looks like a 9. You can picture the nine and the “P” together as a big gold structure or talking to each other saying nothing but “PpPp”

Zero is for BLACK. Picture a black tire; that is simple enough right? Or a black hole.
Now that you have all this, it’s time to put it all together. This is where the experiment continues. I recommend checking out Dave Farrow’s Millionaire Mind memory program. He obviously is the expert and able to describe the steps on how to use this spectrum. Of course you can also Google it yourself and find out.