The Frontal Cortex

Gut Memories

Over at the always wonderful blog Neurophilosophy, Mo has an excellent summary of a recent experiment that investigated the impressive prescience of our unconscious recognition memory:

12 healthy participants were presented with kaleidoscopic images under two different conditions. In one set of trials, they paid full attention to the images, and were then asked to decide whether or not they had seen each of them before. In the other condition, they were made to perform a working memory task whilst the initial first set of images were presented to them – they heard a spoken number and were asked to keep it in mind, so that during the next trial they could indicate whether it was even or odd. Thus, in these trials, their attention was diverted away from the stimuli.

Thus, under the first condition, the participants are consciously aware of having seen some of the images before, and had formed explicit memories of the presented images. By contrast, during the diverted memory trials, they did not form explicit memories of the stimuli, and under these conditions reported either that they had guessed at the answer. This therefore signifies that the participants were unaware of any memories of the images presented to them.

Nevertheless, the decisions which were reportedly made by guessing were found to be significantly more accurate than those based on explicit memories of the visual stimuli,. This suggests that visual information can be encoded accurately even when one is not paying attention to it -something which has been demonstrated before – and also leads to the counterintuitive conclusion that retrieval of a memory is actually enhanced one’s attention is diverted during encoding of that memory.

Got that kids? So the next time you’re trying to remember something – like chemistry equations or state capitals – do your brain a favor and distract it. (I always told my mom that it was okay to do homework in front of the television – now I have empirical proof, just 15 years too late.) In the book, I give a related example that also demonstrates the power of implicit memory:

Let’s say, for example, that you’re given lots of information about how twenty different stocks have performed over a period of time. (The various share prices are displayed on a ticker tape at the bottom of a television screen, just as they appear on CNBC.) You’ll soon discover that you have difficulty remembering all the financial data. If somebody asks you which stocks performed the best, you’ll probably be unable to give a good answer. You can’t process all the information. However, if you’re asked which stocks trigger the best feelings⎯your emotional brain is now being quizzed⎯you’ll suddenly be able to identify the best stocks. According to Tilmann Betsch, the psychologist who performed this clever little experiment, your emotions will “reveal a remarkable degree of sensitivity” to the actual performance of all of the different securities. The investments that rose in value will be associated with the most positive emotions, while the shares that went down in value will trigger a vague sense of unease


  1. #1 John
    February 9, 2009

    So recognition of the kaleidoscopic image was enhanced when participants were given a working memory task. What about the impact on recognition and recall of the working memory task?

    In your case, you could better recall chemistry equations, but did multitasking effect your recall of details from that A-Team episode?

  2. #2 Anibal
    February 10, 2009

    200 years after I. Kant and other rationalists which denied the role of emotions in reason (they considered passions and affect as interferenes to the faculty of reason)and now we have evidence that emotions have reasons for their own good and memory too. That´s progress.

  3. #3 Anonymous
    February 10, 2009

    So distraction actually enhances memory..hmm…Now I wont ever feel bad about studying in front of the TV 🙂

  4. #4 Buster McLeod
    February 10, 2009

    This makes sense on some levels, but how do you reconcile conflicting studies regarding multi-tasking. Wouldn’t this in effect be an argument that it actually IS possible to multi-task, and not only that but that multi-tasking may benefit the tasks being done?

    Also, I saw and enjoyed your talk at Town Hall in Seattle last night. Thank you!

  5. #5 Tyson
    February 10, 2009

    I agree with Buster. The results of this study would seem to affirm that multi-tasking does have some merit (which it might, I’m not 100% on the research).

    Your segment from the book fits perfectly with how I use the internet. In between emails, twitters, and Facebook, I must read somewhere between 10-30 articles a day on the internet but if someone asked me what I learned, I’d remember nothing. However, if a topic I read about was triggered in conversation, I usually seem to have some sort of intuitive recollection of an article I once read. Thank you implicit memory!

  6. #6 Jim McIntee
    February 10, 2009

    I’m a mechnaical engineer by trade and I find that emotional content and the “patterns” around the information have a lot to do with learning and the recall process to get data back from memory. For two examples, you “instantly” remember a disaster, train crash, tornado, etc. (bad emotion) or a funny joke (good emotion) or a story that has many sensory elements. I know I (any many people can remember jokes from my childhood days in boy scouts and I’m now 53. Even when cramming for a test, it helps to vividly imagine the test room, lights, smells, etc. which then helps you to recall everything at the correct time.

  7. #7 Phil
    February 11, 2009

    i wonder if the sexes respond alike to multi-tasking?

  8. #8 Marnie
    February 11, 2009

    What is discussed above is not really a question of multi-tasking, but rather unconscious absorbtion/ memory creation. Multi-tasking studies demand that the subject consciously work at two tasks simultaneously, whereas this study gives insight into the (in my opinion) more interesting question of what our brains do with information that we are not actively working with. The even more interesting aspect, which removes it a bit further from multi-tasking, is that we do not consciously recall the background information, but are able to emotionally reconnect with it when specifically asked to.

    For me, it rings true in that while I can’t remember much about Doogie Howser, M.D (my usual background noise for childhood math), I do remember that he would not operate on his girlfriend because he did not want to see her naked, which I thought was beyond stupid, even at age eight.

  9. #9 glow owl
    February 12, 2009

    word up to marnie, and thanks to jonah for linking us to the interesting neurophilosophy post.

  10. #10 okey oyna
    February 15, 2009


  11. #11 Desirée
    March 1, 2009

    Another study seems to add a similar data point:

    Here, people listening to an audio clip who coloured in shapes (*) could recall more of the content from the clip than those who just listened.

    (*) Unlike the project author, I refuse to call that “doodling”; as a lifetime doodler, I would stick to “colouring” as a description

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