... But Is It Memorable?

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🗓️ Publish Date
December 9, 2005
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So your product, training, documentation, presentation, blog, whatever is interesting, but is it memorable? Do you want it to be?

Where were you when you heard the news about 9/11? Chances are, you remember. What did you eat for dinner last Tuesday? Chances are, you do NOT remember (unless dinner involved a hot date, your birthday, a fist fight with the waiter, or some other emotionally-charged event). Just as emotions can tell the brain that something is worth attention, emotions also tell the brain that something is worth recording.

According to neurobiologist (and Nobel prize winner for his work on memory) Eric Kandel, a "switch must be thrown" to convert a memory from short-term to long-term storage. But a neurochemical smackdown is happening inside your brain--two competing agents fighting for control of that switch. In one corner we have CREB-1, the essential component for throwing the switch that starts converting short-term memories to long-term storage. But in the other corner, we have CREB-2--CREB-1's arch rival. CREB-1's big goal in life is to throw the switch, but CREB-2 guards the switch saying, "Not so fast. If you want to throw that switch you'll have to get past me." CREB-2 is the gatekeeper!

If they gave you a drug that suppressed CREB-2, you'd remember everything the first time. While I would have killed for this the night before college exams, those for whom CREB-2 doesn't do its job are not having a good time. Think of all the things you're exposed to each moment, and imagine how awful it would if you remembered them all...

[Disclaimer: I'm playing fast and loose with the metaphors and science here]

If CREB-2 inhibits memory, then how do you inhibit CREB-2? How do you stop it from protecting the switch? There's the slow, painful (or at least boring) way we all used in college to get through some of our exams. We just kept rereading the same damn chapter over and over. With enough time and repetition, just about anything can be saved to long-term memory.

But there's a more efficient way--EMOTIONS. Scientists have confirmed (and you know it from experience) that emotions play a major role in memory. And it's thought that the chemicals of emotion must be telling CREB-2 to back off and let CREB-1 do it's work.

Just as the brain pays attention to that which it feels, the brain remembers that which it feels. If you can help your users trick their brains into thinking that something is important enough to store, you can help your users learn more quickly. Learning = getting past the suck threshold faster. And learning also means gaining the kind of skill and expertise that can meet the challenges needed to reach the flow state. And that's where you hit the passion threshold.

Remember--your users don't have to be passionate about your product in order to be passionate users. Sometimes--often--users are passionate about what they do with your product. And it's that thing they do where you can help them kick ass. Users who "kick ass" are those who get good enough to reach a state of "optimal experience" doing whatever it is you're helping them do (through your product, service, support, learning, whatever). And that can happen with almost anything. It's the reason that the GTD system has become so popular--it helps us spend more time in flow!

If you want them to remember, make it memorable.


The number eight is arbitrary, but the numeral "8" overlaid on a picture of the spider (which brains are preprogrammed to react to), helps "burn in" the link between spiders and the number 8.

Emotions aren't the only things that improve the memorability of something--pictures, patterns, chunking, and all sorts of "memory tricks" can make a huge difference in whether something is recorded or--sometimes more importantly--whether it can be easily recalled. But I'll save those tricks for another post.

For now, think about how you can use the brain's built-in memory "tagging" system to help users learn/remember more quickly. Link the thing you want remembered with something likely to evoke at least the tiniest chemical reaction. And what are those things? The same things that the brain finds interesting:

  • Surprise, novelty, the unexpected
  • Beauty
  • Stories
  • Conversation (including conversational writing)
  • Emotionally touching (the whole kids and puppies thing)
  • Counterintuitive failures or mistakes
  • Fun, playfulness, humor
  • Varying visuals
  • Faces of people, especially with strong expressions
  • Sounds, music
  • Shock, creepy things

and of course...

  • Sexiness

The difference between whether you use these things to help focus attention or to support long-term memory is in how (and for how long) you use them. A picture of a spider will get your brain's attention, but by linking that spider to something (like the number "8"), you greatly increase the chance that the link between spiders and 8 legs is remembered. A fact is more likely to be remembered if that fact is being "stated" by the face of a person with a strong facial expression. Getting what you expect is not nearly as memorable as when something you thought would work fails. On it goes...

Oh yes, there is one "emotion" that has the opposite effect on memory. The chemistry of anxiety (the stress of worry) is the one feeling that works against memory. So whatever you can do to make users/learners feel comfortable about the learning experience goes a long way toward supporting memory. If people are made to feel stupid for "not getting it", the chances they'll learn it (let alone remember it) drop. And unfortunately, way too many technical manuals, tech support FAQs, books, and poorly designed product interfaces DO make us feel stupid.

So, "interesting" gets your foot in the door, but "memorable" is what helps build and support passionate users.