Making memory work

It is almost eight years since the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, in the financial hub of one of the most advanced countries in the world. Surprisingly, all of us can still recall (with great precision) the events of that fateful day. How is it possible for us to recall details of an event that took place years ago, but not so for something that happened last week, or even yesterday? Psychologists call this phenomenon “flashbulb” memory.

To test this theory, ask a friend where and what he/she was doing on 9/11 when the planes crashed into the twin towers. You will invariably get detailed, specific response from your friend. Then, ask the same person where and what he/she had for lunch last Sunday. Chances are that your friend will find it difficult remembering what he/she had. Try this with as many people as you can, and you will be surprised to notice a pattern in their responses.

Flashbulb memory explained

An event or experience registers as flashbulb memory when it is emotionally-packed, unusual, shocking, and given personal meaning. This type of memory tends to form instantaneously, but remains relatively long in one’s mental schema. Some psychologists theorize that flashbulb memory exists because of adrenalin rush and its consequent effect on both episodic (memory of events, in which one has emotional connections with) and declarative memories (memory of factual information surrounding an emotion-filled event).

This could possibly explain why the most negative and positive experiences are easily recalled. A combination of novelty, sudden change in emotional state, and strong cognitive involvement in a particular event or experience makes it harder to forget.

Application for teaching

A lot of school work requires students to commit facts into their memories. However, there are many who struggle to utilize the full capacity of their memory powers. While it is the responsibility of students to work on this, teachers could help a great deal.

Students usually memorize what was taught after school hours. The time gap between lessons at school and study time at home means that a lot of information is lost. That is why it makes more sense for teachers to teach so that students understand and memorize lessons at the same time. Applying the principle of flashbulb memory to teaching makes both possible. In the context of classroom learning, flashbulb memory should only be created using positive experiences (only positive experiences lead to effective memorization)!


Starting a lesson with a surprise element (e.g. coming in dressed up as a Roman Emperor when introducing a lesson on Roman Empire or bringing different sized magnets when teaching earth’s magnetic poles, etc.) increases students ability to remember the lesson by mentally associating the surprise element(s) with facts learned. This association is done visually and at the time of recall, students visualize the surprise element(s) and consequently activate their declarative memory where facts are recorded.

If a teacher is a persuasive speaker or a good story-teller, he/she could use this knack to help students memorize facts better. A teacher could narrate a story (personal or otherwise) that relates to a lesson being taught. When a story is shared from the heart (implying that it touches the hearts and minds of students), and later connected to a learning experience, students tend to remember it better.

Students memorize and recall better when they have the opportunity to learn by doing. However, this is a conventional idea. The trick is to allow student to engage in learning by doing something novel, exciting, and personally meaningful. For example, when teaching about the Olympics, students could be asked to make their own medals (gold, silver and bronze), Olympics torch, etc.

Leave a Reply

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