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How Your Multiple Senses Help You to Remember

Recite All the Ingredients of a Big MacIn Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me”, the filmmaker asks a group of tourists to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, while standing in front of the White House. The group of tourists struggle with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in unison. When he asks the group about the ingredients of a Big Mac, one of the tourist’s says:

Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun.

While Spurlock uses this test to show how mass media has created a toxic food environment, we may actually be seeing how our brains encode things for quick retrieval. When you use multiple senses (sight, smell taste,touch, and hearing) to encode a memory, you increase your ability to encode the memory for later retrieval.

The Big Mac and Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize neural pathways based upon new experiences. As you learn, you obtain knowledge and skills though instruction or experience. Neural pathways are created during your childhood. Gopnick (1999) estimates newborns with 2,500 synapses and three-year old children have 15,000 synapses. As you age, you develop synaptic pruning, where stronger connections are kept and strengthened. Experience determines which connections stay and which ones get pruned.

Let’s get back to that Big Mac.

Recite All the Ingredients of a Big MacThe Big Mac offers us an example of both instruction and experience creating multiple pathways in the brain. First, we learn the ingredients of the Big Mac from either the catchy jingle or reading the food labels. Second, we experience the Big Mac by seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, eating, consuming, buying, and so on. If you sit by someone consuming a Big Mac, you get a tacit experience, as you see and smell their food.

Let’s get back to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Recite the PledgeMemories are about storage and retrieval. Some memories are strongly tied to a primary entry point, where your start the retrieval process. For example, let’s say you need to recall some phrase from the Preamble to the Constitution. You probably start with the phrase, “We the People”, until you get to the particular phrase that you want. Like the Preamble, the Pledge of Allegiance has a strong entry point.

How Multiple Sensory Encoding Helps You to Remember

In addition, the instruction and experience with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is different for each person. Let’s look at natural born citizens, immigrants, and foreigners. Natural born citizens of the US will learn and recite the Pledge during their early school years. Immigrants are required to learn, if they apply for US citizenship. Foreigners are not required to learn it, but they might read it.

Now, consider how any person might encounter a Big Mac—purchasing, advertising, tasting, smelling, seeing, touching, digesting, and more. The Big Mac is simply encoded more into our minds because we experience it more. The Big Mac is tangible. You can argue about its nutritional value, but it is consumed.

The Pledge of Allegiance is about intangibles. We call them American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How do see, smell, taste, touch, and hear about these intangible things?

We might be able to recall the pledge, if we recited it each time we sit down to eat a Big Mac.

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2 Responses

  1. Paula Thornton (@rotkapchen)

    Just to make sure the significance of your reference to the jingle is not glossed over “Rhythm, repetition, melody, and rhyme can all aid memory.” (source:

    I’m horrible at memorization. There’s a series of items that to this day I can only recall by singing the musical version of them in my head. The odd thing is, that it’s not just about the music. These items were set to 2 different versions of music. The one set, by my estimation, was horrible — there was no continuity between them. The other set was created as a ‘collection’ — and a video was made setting the collection into a story. I sometimes even recall the video to remember the tune that then gets me back to the words.

    There are a number of other factors involved with the Pledge of Allegiance: length and repetition (with or without food). There are a lot of people who did not grow up repeating the Pledge of Allegiance on a daily basis in school (which Brian mentioned) — those of us who did can recall it easily. And while it isn’t typically set to a melody, there is a bit of a rhythm to it, as most frequently recited. Try it for yourself. While most of us did not learn the pledge by reading it, we most certainly can visualize its rhythmic layout based on the typical pauses (note the triplet meter that is mostly prevalent, whether by word or syllable):

    I pledge allegiance
    to the flag
    of the United States
    of America
    and to the republic
    for which it stands
    one nation
    under God
    with liberty
    and justice
    for all.

    But let’s go back to your original premise of senses. Years ago, in a class on multimedia development, the instructor mentioned the significance of our senses for creativity. This you can also observe and/or try for yourself. We’re already familiar with the visual stimulus that designers rely upon for inspiration (e.g. an office surrounded by ‘toys’ — no greater example of that than John Lasseter — see second image But one that we often miss is touch — and not just touch in the surface sense, but in the malleable sense. Mindlessly kneading a piece of clay (playdough) in your hand(s) while thinking (if you’re really adventurous you can make your own, can add amazing new depth to your thought. Finding a way to represent a struggle you’re facing from a pile of junk or pipe cleaners (boy, isn’t that a term that has outlived its useful meaning?) can provide a new way to look at it.

    This all goes way beyond memory in the recall sense — it strikes at the essence of our stream of consciousness…how we think.

    1. Paula, I think you are right on so many fronts here. I do worry that some people have what is called a Google bias, where they rely on search engines to answer questions.

      Some parts of the brain will not be used because of our reliance on technology. I think people will say others parts will get developed, which is true. I worry about what will forget, though.

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