In 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:
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.
The 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.
Memories 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.