Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘long-term memory

Memories Change Over Time

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Memories of dramatic events seem to be burned into our minds. It seems easy to recall where we were when we learned JFK was assassinated (before my time), Ronald Reagan was shot (middle school gym at the end of the day), Elvis died (in a car near the top of Massanutten Mountain on our way to my grandparents’ place), or on September 11, 2001 (checking email after sleeping late).

It all seems so clear, but how reliable are our memories of the events and the circumstances surrounding them? Not very, especially as time passes and discussions of the events contain information not available at first. For example, a Smithsonian magazine article notes that Karim Nader, a neuroscientist, examined his own memories of September 11 and found he had made some mistakes.

Nader, now a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, says his memory of  the World Trade Center attack has played a few tricks on him. He recalled seeing  television footage on September 11 of the first plane hitting the north tower of  the World Trade Center. But he was surprised to learn that such footage aired  for the first time the following day. Apparently he wasn’t alone: a 2003 study  of 569 college students found that 73 percent shared this misperception.

These changes are normal and expected. You store long-term memories by associating new information with things you already know. As you continue to receive information about an event, it becomes difficult to distinguish what occurred when. That’s why legal experts view eyewitness testimony as unreliable – humans are fallible, our memories especially so.

When you’re an improviser, this fallibility works to your advantage. Long-form shows can run for 45 minutes or more and, given the huge number of choices performers make, inconsistencies crop up all the time. The good news is that your audience wants you to succeed and, unless the error is too big to ignore, they’re almost always willing to go along with the new reality. Not doing so would undermine their enjoyment of the show, so they have an incentive to play along.

This forgiving atmosphere isn’t present in politics and business, at least not for your competitors. They want you to fail and will bring up every instance of you ignoring or, in their opinion, attempting to mischaracterize the past. It doesn’t help when a campaign adviser admits that’s what you plan to do. As reported in a article on March 21, 2012:

Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s senior campaign adviser, was asked in a CNN interview Wednesday morning whether the former Massachusetts governor had been forced to adopt conservative positions in the rugged race that could hurt his standing with moderates in November’s general election.

“I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes,” Fehrnstrom responded. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”

Ouch. I anticipate the Etch A Sketch will be a theme in the 2014 and 2016 election cycle. Regardless, the lesson to draw from this incident is the same for both improv and business: Don’t abuse your audience’s goodwill.

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Types of Memory

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When the average person talks about memory, they usual mean long-term memory. In other words, can you study a subject today and remember it for a test tomorrow or next week. There are many other different types of memory, each with its own function.

Short-term memory refers to the system you use to maintain small amounts of information for a brief period of time. In general terms, short-term memory refers to information you keep at hand for about 30 seconds and consists of seven items, plus or minus two. If you have ever tried to memorize a phone number and repeat it back, you’ve most likely found that you can remember the last seven digits with no trouble but can throw yourself off when you repeat the area code at the start. What happens is that recalling the area code of the number pushes some or all of the information out your short-term memory.

Two other types of memory that operate on an even shorter time frame than short-term memory are iconic memory and the phonological loop. Iconic memory is associated with vision and lets you retain an image of something you saw for about a second. The same is true of the phonological loop, except it works for things you hear. The best example of the phonological loop at work is when someone says something to and you say “What…oh nevermind, I heard you.” What happened is that you weren’t paying attention to what the other person said, but you were able to replay their statement using the contents of the phonological loop.

The final two types of memory I want to mention are episodic memory and semantic memory. Episodic memory is the more obvious of the two. As the name implies, it refers to your recall of events or episodes in your life. If I were to ask you about the last movie you saw in a cinema, you might have to think about it for a moment. By contrast, if I were to ask you to add 3+4, you would answer seven instantaneously. You have practiced simple addition so often that the answer just comes to you, but recalling the movie you watched most recently is a rare event that requires you to dig into your internal autobiography to find the answer.

These memory systems all play significant roles in life, improv, and business. I’ll take them on a few at a time over the next several posts.