Sonntag, 5. Juni 2011

The Long-Term Memory, Storytelling and Knowledge Management

My mother loves to tell this story again and again:”Gerald,” she told her 3-year old son, “don’t touch the burner, it is very hot!” Several seconds I looked at her with big eyes, then I touched the hot-plate, until a burning pain made her crying son realize what she meant.

Why do we fail conveying abstract concepts and put our code of conduct into bloody stories? Instead of the promised literature lecture, today it is psychochology, no lesser than the Long-Term Memory I have invited for help.
Did you know that within seconds (20-30) the Long-Term Memory takes over - or doesn't? The Long-Term Memory consist of 3 parts:
Episodic memory is the memory of autobiographical events (times, places, associated emotions, and other contextual knowledge) that can be explicitly stated.
Semantic memory,on the other end, is a structured record of facts, concepts and skills that we have acquired.
Semantic and episodic memory together make up the category of declarative memory, which is one of the two major divisions in memory. The counterpart to declarative, or explicit memory, is procedural memory, or implicit memory.
via stockxchgn, brain001 by obscenity

So how can we within this model explain the stickiness of story-telling?
Psychologists (the brain from top to bottom) have identified some factors: …3) Affective values associated with the material to be memorized, and the individual’s mood and intensity of emotion; 4) Location, light, sounds, short, the entire context in which the memorizing takes place is recorded along with the information being memorizes. Our memory systems are thus contextual.

But is a story an “autobiographical event”? According to medicalxpress indeed: Bad news for muggle parents! A new study by psychologists at the University at Buffalo finds that we more or less "become" vampires or wizards just by reading about them.
So story-telling supports the emotional driver for effective memory functions.

The contextual driver is already almost clear, but there is more:
Semantic memory can be regarded as the residue of experiences stored in episodic memory. Semantic memory homes in on common features of various episodes and extracts them from their context. A gradual transition takes place from episodic to semantic memory. In this process, episodic memory reduces its sensitivity to particular events so that the information about them can be generalized.
Conversely, our understanding of our personal experiences is necessarily due to the facts and concepts stored in our semantic memory. Thus, we see that these two types of memory are not isolated entities, but rather interact with each other constantly.
Also, in your brain's memory systems, isolated pieces of information are memorized less effectively than those associated with existing knowledge. The more associations between the new information and things that you already know, the better you will learn it.

I had chosen the model of knowledge = information + context because of its simplicity and explanatory power, now I realize that this model reflects simplistically the structure of the Long-Term Memory in terms of semantic and episodic memory.

By the way, I have never introduced to my kids the concepts of hot plates, my mother has told her grandchildren a story instead.



  1. Hi Gerald,

    Very nice and useful overview of memory types and how it explains human hard-wired preference for storytelling.

    A couple of reactions or questions: I'd like to hear more about the idea of becoming what we read/see/hear.

    And I will remember the idea of taking account of sights, sounds, smells when e.g. documenting sthg. We (I) probably tend to overvalue auditive (speech) vs. any other form of stimulus, when our brain is recording a whole other lot of signals in addition. Being more aware and attuned to these signals could tell us even more about how we learn and share...

    Thank you for the eye/ear/mouth/nose and hand opener on this one!



  2. @Ewen
    thanks for you kind comment, instead of answering to it, I was reloading an old (internal) blog post on Cognitive Load Theory (only the attempt of a nutshell in the post - but however you relate to that, the article is well worth reading!) But also this is only an intermediate step, there is more - I am afraid it takes some more untill I finally get the storytelling part - but there I can rely on your stock ;-)

  3. Cognitive Load Theory:

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