Writing Craft V3: The Elements of Memory

(Today’s entry is on the elements of memory, which I find some of the coolest stuff ever!)

The Elements of Memory

Out in the real world—not the fictional one–when you are paying attention, you collect sensory information. This includes sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. It also includes a lot of other minor senses, like the ability to tell where your limbs are in relation to the rest of your body, a sense of up and down, the ability to identify faces as faces, the sense of whether you are spinning or holding still, and so on.

That information is collected by the senses, passed along the nervous system, and processed by the brain in your working memory.

Working memory is fast and agile, but not very persistent. You can hold about five things in your working memory; if you need to notice something else when you’re already holding five things in your memory, one of those things gets forgotten, or the new thing doesn’t get noticed.

The reason that you can remember more than five things, total, is that some details are moved to another part of your memory, the long-term memory.

Long-term memory seems to involve building, changing, or strengthening neurological pathways in your brain. Long-term memory takes longer to form and it’s more expensive, calorie-wise, than short-term memory. This is probably because you have to physically connect cells with new neural pathways in order to form these memories, where working memory seems to involve certain nerve clusters signalling to each other.

Forming long-term memories is expensive. Our brains won’t form long-term memories unless it has a good reason to do so.

So what makes a memory easy to remember?

General Memory Tricks

We may not know how memory works, but we do have some pretty good tricks on how to remember things.*

How to remember things, in general:

  • Group complex information together and treat it as one thing, also known as “chunking.”
  • Associate them with an unusual mental image or other “mnemonic.”
  • Recall them immediately after you finish taking them in, then again several times later.

To remember something in general, chunk the complex into something simpler, take time to recall the chunks, and create a mnemonic around the chunks.

For example, if you wanted to remember the order of the colors in the rainbow, you might first take the separate colors—red, orange, yellow, green, indigo, and violet—and “chunk” them by caling them a rainbow. Then, you might create a mnemoic for them based on the first letters of the colors’ names: Roy G. Biv, which sort of sounds like a person’s name, but an unusual one.

If you wanted to reinforce that mnemonic, you might imagine Roy G. Biv as a salesman who knocks at your door, presents you with a business card with his name on it. Make sure to imagine the feel of the corners of the card pressing into your fingers! Imagine him coming inside your house, where he opens his briefcase—make sure to imagine the color of the briefcase, the texture, and the sound it makes when he opens it—and, when he opens it, a rainbow emerges, coloring everything in your room beautifully. Make sure you imagine the objects in your room, including where the table is in relation to the objects that are colored, and what color the objects become.

Pretty cool, right?

If you were to imagie the same scene a few times—not right away, but in an hour, then the next morning, and then two weeks later, for example—you would not forget whatever image you came up with, and you would probably remember that specific image whenever the term “rainbow” came up.

Sensory details are not necessarily memorable, but they do tend to reinforce memory. They work both to create a sense of verisimilitude and to make something extra memorable. (This is a hint to use them a lot!)

So that’s how we remember things in general. But there is at least one other trick that applies to making something memorable: the cool factor.

The Cool Factor

We tend to remember things that we deem “cool,” or somehow attractive or admirable. When we decide something is “cool,” it is because we want to be it, do it, or have it—that is, we are attracted to it—or it fits our ideas about what has value. The term itself, “cool,” can also mean the admirable trait of remaining undisturbed by emotion while under pressure.

When we think of something “cool,” we are thinking of things that:

  • We want to be
  • We want to do
  • We want to have
  • We know have true value

These things differ from person to person; in fiction, we call the big umbella clusters of cool things “genres” or “subgenres.” What genres you read tends to agree with what you think is cool, although each genre has clusters of books—which may or may not be called a subgenre—to accommodate people who have more than one thing that is cool. For example, the romance genre (a genre for people who value connection) has subgenres like historical, paranormal, and suspense, but also has tropes, like “second chances” or “enemies to lovers” that reflect further niches of “cool factor” for romance readers.

The individuality of any given person’s “cool factor” means that one person’s unforgettable novel, movie, meal, piece of art, album, or even celebrity is another person’s forgettable one.

Think back to some memorable works of art. What is the first thing you remember about that work? Was it cool? What does it say about your values?

There is sort of a reverse cool factor at play in some works, particularly horror, in which the things we hate, fear, and do not wish to have or be are invoked, because of their memorability.

Often, these hated and feared elements—which are repulsive or shameful—are combined with attractive and impressiveelements, when we are both attracted to and repelled from something.

Here are some examples of different types of “cool factor” from my personal point of view:

  • Cool Factor: The female character Ripley using the power loader in the movie Aliens to defend a small child. A female character that has strength and uses it to defend others.
  • Anti-Cool Factor: The face-hugger and chest-burster aliens in the Alien series. Characters are “raped” by the aliens, losing control of their bodies, and being killed.
  • Combined Cool and Anti-Cool Factor: The queen alien in the Alien series. The queen has strength and power which she uses for the benefit of those weaker than her—but does so by controlling and killing others.

Having elements of cool, anti-cool, and combined cool make the Alien series is pretty memorable to me, even if it isn’t my favorite movie of all time, and even though I haven’t seen the individual movies that often and find them of variable quality. I remember them.

(Next time, we wrap up some loose ends and talk about where to put this stuff!)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *