Performance-Enhancing Strategies

Let’s take a quick two-question poll: List the five freedoms granted in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Do you have that list?  Alright, let’s move on to question number two: Name the five members of the television family, The Simpsons.

If your memory is typical with what statistics have discovered, .1 per cent of you will have recalled that the five freedoms granted by the First Amendment are freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances.  However, a whopping 22 per cent of you were able to name Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie.

What accounts for this remarkable disparity in our memories?  Why can we remember what might be considered frivolous popular culture knowledge and not remember what we all have likely learned in our history lessons since fifth grade or even lived out in our experiences?

One obvious reason is because of repetition.  Many of us watch the weekly television series, and according to Wikipedia, The Simpsons, with its 29-season run, is the longest-running scripted primetime TV series in the U.S. The Simpsons are also featured on products or in our conversations, the subject of allusion.  Because we hear about Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie more often than we hear the list of five freedoms, we more readily remember them.

On a related note, think about how we generally possess brand and advertising slogan recognition—say, “Just Do It,” and we think of Nike, yet we seem unable to name plants in nature or to identify and recall key social and political issues.

Although we might think we’re immune to advertising, that we don’t pay attention to it, no one is immune; no one lives outside of culture.  Advertising is not a passive mirror that simply reflects society; it shapes thinking and responses.  Like the ancient myths, it is both a creator and a perpetuator of the dominant values of a culture.  In advertising, certain values flourish, and others are not reflected at all.

Jean Kilbourne, author, filmmaker, and educator, has written an essay entitled “Jesus Is a Brand of Jeans” (2006) in which she partially explains advertising’s influence.  She claims only 8% of an ad’s message is received by the conscious mind; the rest works on the subconscious level.  She describes advertising’s effort to link our deepest emotions to products: We cherish our children, so we buy Michelin tires; we value education, so we buy Bresnan to help our children “move to the head of the class,” and we know “only choosy mothers choose Jif.”

Education can take some tips from the advertising playbook, since in advertising lie some key implications for learning, namely that emotional associations and connections play a role in determining information recall.  In psychology, arousal refers to the state of being physically and internally alert, and research shows that a high level of arousal leads to enhancement of both short-term and long-term memory.

Because the level of arousal evoked by environmental stimuli can have a significant effect on memory performance, educators might look for ways to incorporate sound and movement into lessons.  On a purely biological level, movement increases blood and oxygen flow, which positively affects cognitive development, and sound devices like rhyme and music work as mnemonics to aid memory.  We discover evidence of this truth in how easily we can chant an advertising jingle, recite a nursery rhyme, or sing the lyrics to our favorite songs.   As a further endorsement for using movement in learning, consider that we retain 10% of what we hear, 20% of what we read, and 80% of what we see and do.

Another environmental stimulus, color improves comprehension by 75%, compared to black and white.   Because it increases our attentional level, color improves our ability to recall facts, especially if that information is presented in vivid warm colors, like red and yellow.

Teachers who employ these strategies increase student comprehension since our brains are more likely to focus on stimuli of emotional significance or on that which draws our attention—like color, music, and motion can.  With focus comes learning and with rehearsal recall, so devising a mnemonic—like the acronym ROY G. BIV which enables us to easily list the colors in the visible light spectrum—might help for remembering the five freedoms.  I suggest RAPPS (religion, assemble, press, petition the government, and speech).  Perhaps you prefer acrostics, like My Very Energetic Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas for remembering the nine planets, back before Pluto lost its status as a planet.  Then, Really Silly People Always Pout might enable you to name the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble peaceably, and freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Imagine a classroom where color, singing, and moving not only build comprehension but bring pleasure to learning for every Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie!  As teachers use their summer breaks to design lessons for the next school year, they would do well to remember these important performance-enhancing strategies for the brain!

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