As discussed in my last psychology article, there are many issues with the human mind’s memory capacities. Often these are caused by features of our memory that are meant to help us, but that do not work in certain situations, just as sometimes our brain is tricked by visual illusions, as it tries to make sense of something physically impossible.
One feature of our memory specifically that is strange is that it seems we are better at remembering things when we are still in the middle of actively doing them. This may be related to the difference in functioning between our working memory and our long-term memory and can have its own issues. It is of course very useful if we’re in the middle of a task and without it, we would probably struggle to get anything done, or would have to write every little thing down, but this quality also makes it harder to remember information about events in the past, such as crime scenes, an important area for memory researchers.
Lewin originally noticed when he was at restaurants that waiters would be able to remember a great deal about those orders that the customers had not paid for yet, but could remember almost nothing about those orders that were finished. He discussed this with a student of his, Zeigarnik, who then went on to study the area in detail. She considered that there may in fact be a different type of memory encoding system when tasks are not closed properly, and believed this may be more effective. She gave a set of participants some short tasks and puzzles to do, and half of the time they were asked to stop half way through. When the puzzles weren’t finished they were found to be remembered a lot better, supporting the hypothesis. This became known as the ‘Zeigarnik Effect’.
Implications of this effect to the real world may be in learning at school. For example it may be that children learn more with regular breaks than when studying for long periods at a time, and with breaks mid-way through topics, since this will make the topics last in the memory for longer. However, this is controversial, since the learning from the topics will still be completed, just with a break in the middle, and therefore will not still be going on when it is time for an exam, and of course, stopping mid-way through a topic before an exam will not be useful, since it means that not the whole topic will be learnt. At the moment, all we really know is that our memory for situations is better while we are still in them. Despite this, further research may enable us to work out how we can use this knowledge to aide learning.
Whether or not this effect can help us learn better or not, it is still an interesting finding, and may be useful for other things, such as when interviewing witnesses. Perhaps if we can get individuals to see the crime and the witness interview as all part of the same process, then their memory for the event may last in greater detail for longer, until the interview is complete.
Image from: http://images.wisegeek.com/waitress.jpg