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Unstrange Phenomena

21 March 2009

Brain: In One Ear and Out the Other

From Denny: It turns out our brain's short-term memory can usually only handle between 5 to 9 data chunks at a time before clearing the cache. It doesn't help any that our brains love pattern and predictable patterns at that. We like to organize new information and our perception into patterns. That's why music is so easy to remember.

Take into account that a really good joke relies upon subverting the predictable pattern recognition we expect. Jokes love shouting the unexpected to our brains, like a magician utilizing misdirection, starting on one path and then suddenly jerking us on to another path.

"Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, 'What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember.'"

We can remember the cliched jokes like the mother-in-law ones. Why? They have predictable patterns!

An additional reason we can't easily recall that stellar joke:

"Daniel L. Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard, there is a big difference between verbatim recall of all the details of an event and gist recall of its general meaning. Jokes tend to live or die because of the details of nuance, precision and timing."


"By all accounts, my grandfather Nathan had the comic ambitions of a Jack Benny but the comic gifts of a John Kerry. Undeterred, he always kept a few blank index cards in his pocket, so that if he happened to hear a good joke, he’d have someplace to write it down.

Like many people, I can never remember a joke. I hear or read something hilarious, I laugh loudly enough to embarrass everybody else in the library, and then I instantly forget everything about it — everything except the fact, always popular around the dinner table, that 'I heard a great joke today, but now I can’t remember what it was.'

For researchers who study memory, the ease with which people forget jokes is one of those quirks, those little skids on the neuronal banana peel, that end up revealing a surprising amount about the underlying architecture of memory.

And there are plenty of other similarly illuminating examples of memory’s whimsy and bad taste — like why you may forget your spouse’s birthday but will go to your deathbed remembering every word of the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song. And why you must chop a string of data like a phone number into manageable and predictable chunks to remember it and will fall to pieces if you are in Britain and hear a number read out as “double-four, double-three.” And why your efforts to fill in a sudden memory lapse by asking your companions, “Hey, what was the name of that actor who starred in the movie we saw on Friday?” may well fail, because (what useless friends!) now they’ve all forgotten, too.

Welcome to the human brain, your three-pound throne of wisdom with the whoopee cushion on the seat."

By Natalie Angier @ New York Times

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