Thought Leadership

Thanks for the memory

By Colin Walls

I have often read about the storage capacity of the human brain and have seen lots of statistics on the vast amount of data we can retain. I am sure that this is all true, but I have two thoughts on this matter. First, what is really impressive is, considering how much information we are bombarded with all of the time, that we do not simply remember everything. We would totally drown in data if we did. We are very good at being selective – actually quite good at forgetting. The other thought is that the hard thing sometimes is not storing a memory, but recalling it. The older I get, the more trouble I seem to have with finding the right word or name. It tends to come to me in due course, so it is still there – just finding it is hard. Oddly, ideas and concepts seem to remain accessible.

I am particularly interested in some of the processes of making memories …

The key thing, that I have learned, is that emotional state has a profound influence on memory acquisition. An extreme example of this is when people talk about a traumatic experience and they say that everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. What is that all about? I believe that, when we are experiencing extreme anxiety, the brain aims to acquire as much information as possible and starts laying down memories at a faster rate. The logic is that, with the maximum amount of information, we have the best chance to escape from a difficult situation. When these memories are “played back”, they are presented at normal speed, which looks like slow motion – exactly the same way that a slowmo movie is made.

It is interesting to learn/know stuff like this, but I am always looking for practical applications. For some years, I have used a technique when I make presentations which exploits the relationship between emotions and memory. When I am presenting, I want people to remember what I say – well, the key points anyway. What I try to do is instill some emotions in my audience. Fear, hate and anger would not be good choices; I usually aim at humor or surprise or just engagement. I know that it works well when I get feedback like “You are the guy with the balloons” or “Yes, I remember when you threw a teddy bear at me” or “You told us the story about the little boy and the camera”.

This is a great example of when I have found that I can do my job better by just having more fun. I am sure there must be more opportunities to do this and I am very open to suggestions. I would welcome your input by comment or email on how you have fun while doing a good job.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at