BACK TO Home Page 50 CONVERSATION TOPICS Memory and Mind

Stories you can use to start conversation or to add interest to speeches or presentations

Book Extracts on Mind and Memory

Resources for Speakers - Anecdotes About Memory Mind Brains and Thinking

Deja Vu

The opposite of deja vu is jamais vu. It is most commonly experienced when a person momentarily does not recognize a word or, less commonly, a person or place, that she or he knows. This can be achieved by anyone by repeatedly writing or saying a specific word out loud.

Memory and Mind

We don't pay attention - demo of travel counter - pair tourists approach start talking to blond guy with moustache; he ducks down below counter to get paper, but completely different guy pops up - more than half failed to notice change

Depressing Day

The third Monday in January is typically considered to be ‘Blue Monday’, allegedly the most depressing day of the year. Factors contributing to this theory include debt, miserable weather, post-Christmas blues, failing New Year’s resolutions and low motivation.


We’ve all experienced it: The frustration of entering a room and forgetting what we were going to do. Or get. Or find. New research from University of Notre Dame Psychology Professor Gabriel Radvansky suggests that passing through doorways is the cause of these memory lapses. "Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an 'event boundary' in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away," Radvansky explains. "Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized."

How We Think

Humans use two separate cognitive systems for processing information: one that is fast, emotional and intuitive, and another that is slower and more analytical.The first system innately imputes purpose, personality or mental states to objects, leading to supernatural beliefs. People who rely more on intuitive thinking are more likely to be believers, while the more analytical are less likely. This doesn't necessarily mean analytical thinking causes disbelief, but activating analytical thinking can override the intuitive system - and vice versa

(see also Thinking Fast and Slow )

What's the new psychological trick for improving performance? Strategic lying. When amateur golfers were told, falsely, that a club belonged to the professional golfer Ben Curtis, they putted better than other golfers using the same club. For a study published in March, human cyclists were pitted against a computer-generated opponent moving at, supposedly, the exact speed the cyclist had achieved in an earlier time trial. In fact, the avatars were moving 2 percent faster, and the human cyclists matched them, reaching new levels of speed. Lying is obviously not a long-term strategy - once you realize what's going on, the effects may evaporate. It works as long as your trainer can keep the secret.

There's strong evidence that chewing gum improves working memory, episodic memory and speed of perception. Why this is the case is not understood.


Oxford University researchers found a new pain killer – the inverted binoculars. The scientists demonstrated that the subjects who looked at their wounded hands through wrong end of the binoculars, making the hand appear smaller, experienced significantly less pain and decreased swelling. According to the researchers, this demonstrates that even basic bodily sensations such as pain are modulated by what we see. So next time if you stub your toe or cut a finger, do yourself a favour, look away!

Memory and Mind

Neurologists often talk about the brain's 'architecture', but it turns out the brain takes that very literally indeed. Research published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology examined one of the most discombobulating facts of life for the over-30 crowd: going into a room to fetch something only to forget utterly what it is you wanted to get. You only remember once you're back in the room where you first thought of it. Here's why: once through a doorway, the brain immediately clears itself, filing away memories from one room as soon as it exits into another. Doorways are the boundaries in your brain's house of memory.

Decision Fatigue

What is it? According to research by an eminent American social psychologist, the human brain has only so much energy available to make choices. If we are forced to make decision after decision after decision, our brains give up and we either make decisions without thinking properly or we enter a state of 'decision paralysis' and stop deciding at all. And, thanks to making all those decisions, our willpower is shot to bits, too. Decision fatigue is said to account for everything from judges refusing more prisoners parole as the afternoon wears on to your Kit Kat binge at the supermarket checkout. Ideas such as 'option paralysis' have been doing the rounds for years, but 'decision fatigue' is the name given to the problem by Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist, and John Tierney, a science journalist for The New York Times, in their forthcoming book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.


Similar experiment where a guy accosts people in a square and asks for directions. Part way thru 2 men carrying a large door walk between the people, and while doing so, one of the door carriers swaps places with the interviewer. Again, less than half noticed the switch.


Third version: students asked to watch a video of basketball game (with only about 3 players on each team) and count the number of passes made. Less than half noticed a man in a gorilla suit jumping around in the middle of the game.

When you are a pessimist, and something bad happens, you live it twice - once when you worryabout it, and a second time when it happens. (Amos Tversky)

Who Is The Real You?

Drugs the best evidence that our 'mind' is actually a chemical construct - our thoughts, our perceptions, our beliefs, are created by chemistry - take a (hallucinatory) drug and these all change

Our Mind

In one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia's plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help. Perhaps this is because, as some research suggests, people give in large part to feel good inside. That works best when you write a check and the problem is solved. If instead you're reminded of larger problems that you can never solve, the feel-good rewards diminish.


We need a dedicated PA, but most settle for a wife - go to party and she's by your side, topping up your memory like an old man's nurse - "The young guy is your son's soccer coach. The woman in the corner is your cousin. That older lady coming towards you with arms outstretched is your mother."


Colour coded parking buildings - each area a different colour, complete with background music to jog memory: "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" "Red Red Wine


Billy Connolly "Happy Birthday" (he reckoned he had major trouble with his memory - other day someone asked him his name and he had to sing Happy Birthday to himself, right through, before triumphantly announcing BILLY! when he got to the last line)

Our Caveman Mind

Our brains are simply not equipped to make complex decisions all day long. For most people the capacity to do very difficult thinking is very limited. But it's like feeling bad because you can't run 20 miles every day - it's just not something we were built to do.

Scott Alexander descr himself as a "less wrong rationalist"

The Science

One reason for the doctors' optimism is recent dramatic changes in our understanding of the brain. "For around 400 years we thought the brain was like a machine with parts, each of which had a specific function and circuits set and finalised in childhood," said Dr Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself.

"If you had a gunshot wound like Giffords's, doctors would wait for the swelling to go down and see what was left but wouldn"t be able to do anything about what had been damaged. It turns out that the old view of the brain is not only wrong but spectacularly wrong," he said. "Now we know the brain is plastic - in other words adaptable and malleable - and can respond to stimulation, so different parts can be trained to take over functions of damaged areas and form new connections."

As recently as the 1970s, such views were heretical, he added, but over the past 10 years they have become widely accepted.

(The DSM-IV medical term for the precise disorder is, I believe, whack job.)

Clear The Mind With Nature

Mind-fug caused by too much time in front of the box really can be reversed by a country walk - it can even boost your attention span and memory by a fifth, say Michigan University investigators. They report in Psychological Science how they sent volunteers walking either down urban streets or through botanical gardens, and found that those on the nature walks significantly boosted their brainpower. No such effect was seen in the urban walkers. The researchers believe the study supports the biophilia thesis - the idea that our brains evolved to exist in natural surroundings and still benefit highly from exposure to nature. The psychologists found that the effect works just as well in winter as in summer. If the weather really is too cold to venture outside, simply looking at pictures of nature can have a beneficial effect, they add.

How Scientists Study the Mind

Metaknowledge also has unveiled the possibility of 'ghost theories' - implicit assumptions that may undergird scientific conclusions, even when researchers do not acknowledge them. For example, psychologists frequently use college students as research subjects and accordingly publish papers based on the behavior of a group that may or may not be typical of the entire population. Scholars using traditional metaknowledge techniques found that 67 percent of the papers published in the Journal of Personality and Social Behavior were based on studies of undergraduates. The use of computation could accelerate and widen the discovery of such ghost theories.

Belief in Supernatural

Four out of ten people in Britain believe in ghosts and more than half believe in life after death, according to research to be published today. Research by Theos, the theology think-tank, shows that seven out of ten people believe in the human soul and more than five out of ten believe in heaven. One in five believes in astrology or horoscopes, one in ten in Tarot or fortune telling and nearly three in ten people believe in reincarnation.


A friend of mine lost his wife to cancer. The morning after the funeral, as he and his children sat at the table, a bird flew on to the ledge of the open window. It sang sweetly for a minute and went away, leaving behind a deep tranquillity. My friend is a scientist with no belief in the supernatural, yet felt convinced that the bird was a messenger. His wife was reassuring him: don't worry, everything will be fine. "I know it wasn't her," he told me, "but I also know that it was." The capacity to hold rational thoughts alongside irrational intuitions is part of the mind's design. Even if we deny belief in the supernatural - in ghosts, say, or astrology - we are all inclined towards magical thinking and superstition. It's a frame of mind that one direction opens out to a dream world of myth and imagination and the other leads to practical creativity in the arts and sciences. The dark side is mental illness.


Behavioral economics holds that individuals do not necessarily act rationally and in their own self-interest. Instead, they make intuitive decisions that may be swayed by phenomena like framing. Far more people are likely to buy a package of cold cuts, for example, if it's framed, or labeled, as '90 percent fat-free' than if it's labeled 'containing 10 percent fat.'


In the mid-twentieth century, the lobotomy was such a popular cure for mental illness that Antonio Egas Moniz was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his role in perfecting the operation. Moniz and Freeman had a falling out after Freeman started using an ice pick-shaped instrument to perform up to 25 lobotomies a day, without anaesthesia, while reporters looked on. Freeman's crazy antics didn't scare off potential patients, though: John F. Kennedy's sister Rosemary got a lobotomy from Freeman, which left her a vegetable for the rest of her life. And she was one of many people whose "cure" was more like zombification than freedom from mental anguish.

Memory and Mind

Even people in their 30's worrying about memory loss. But it's more a matter of what you pay attention to. Just check out the lost property box at local high school to see what smart kids lose track of. Twice as much info in the world now as was 3 years ago - and most of it is uninteresting


Psychologists have discovered that people performed better in memory tests when the weather was bad and they were feeling grumpy. The research discovered that the worse the weather and the more depressed the individual, the sharper their brain. "People performed much better on our memory test when the weather was unpleasant and they were in a slightly negative mood. "On bright sunny days, when they were more likely to be happy and carefree, they flunked it." The research mirrors previous research that showed that gloomy students received better grades than those that were happy.


Our memories are much more fallible than we think - when we look back on music of 1967, we remember Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields, yet for most of the year the best sellers were Release Me and Green Green Grass of Home

Mental Attitude

Even the greatest achievers have to take the occasional step backwards. Even Warren Buffett. His message: don't get your less glorious moments out of proportion. "If you go from the first floor to the 100th floor of a building and then go back to the 98th, you'll feel worse than if you've just gone from the first to the second, you know. But you've got to fight that feeling, because you're still on the 98th floor."


We can remember in detail 24 hours after an event; a week later we only have the general gist - but, if asked, our imagination supplies the necessary details, usually influenced by new surroundings (ie the sort of questions being asked, whether we want to impress the interviewer etc). As time passes, opportunities multiply for interference - either from later, similar experiences, or from vicarious ones: books, films, TV, or friend's anecdotes

False Memories

False memories are easily planted - show people a film of street accident, then ask loaded Q's about a (non-existent) red car, and very quickly all the primed witnesses will be convinced there was a red car there (which is a very simple demonstartion of how easily we can lead to construct false memories of events that never actually took place in our pasts)

Memory and Mind

Dutch study surveying university students after a cargo plane hit an apartment building in Amsterdam - although there was no tape of the plane actually colliding with the building, 55% claimed they'd seen TV footage of it doing that. Then in a follow-up 3 months later, 75% claimed to have seen it.

Memory and Mind

People who work in the constant dark of Antarctic winter suffer short term memory loss - carry round notebooks and write everything down

Memory and Mind

Neuroscientists have come to recognize that patients with devastating brain disorders such as Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases greatly underestimate the passage of time. Poor timing is a hallmark in several psychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, autism and attention deficit disorder. Many of about 5,500 soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injury will find that faulty timing is one of the invisible wounds that follow them into civilian life. And researchers have confirmed that as we reach senior status, our internal clock grows increasingly unreliable.

Most effective way to help autistic kids is to train parents as basic therapists - how to recognise when kid is trying to communicate, and how to connect and draw them out.

Messy Mind?

What do you think? Does a messy environment indicate a messy mind (or does the opposite indicate a constipated control freak)?

Men and Women's Minds

There are differences in way men and women store memories - in any situation there is an overall narrative (boy gets run over by a car) and details (blue car, boy carrying ball). Brain scans show the women storing details, in left amygdala, men storing overall gist, in right amygdala


Alzheimer's patients who are given powerful drugs to calm them down are almost twice as likely to die prematurely as those not given the medication, a study has found.It is estimated that more than 100,000 elderly people are given antipsychotic drugs each year, despite warnings that they should not be given to people with dementia.
The latest research found that, after three years, fewer than a third of people on antipsychotics were alive compared with nearly two thirds given an inactive placebo, suggesting that up to 23,500 dementia patients are dying prematurely each year.The sedative drugs are normally given to people with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, and are not licensed to treat Alzheimer's.Campaigners say that the treatments are commonly prescribed unofficially as a "chemical cosh" to control agitation, delusions, sleep disturbance and aggression in difficult patients.

Getting lost is first sign Alzheimers.


Eating curry containing turmeric once or twice a week could prevent Alzheimer's disease and may researchers are investigating if it can be used as a treatment in those who already have it


Three large cups of coffee a day could help to slow the progress of Alzheimer's disease and even reverse the condition, researchers say.


Getting perked up
How to get 500mg of caffeine a day:
2 x 250mg caffeine pills
3 x large espresso-based coffees
6 x cans of Red Bull
14 x cans of Coca-Cola
15 x cups of tea
7kg (16 lb) of chocolate


Psychic in Edinburgh whose house burned down - turned out he'd left his crystal ball on windowsill in bright sunshine, and ignited a pile of washing

Psychic 2

Sarcastic judge sentenced a psychic (up on false pretences charges, as you might expect), began his remarks with "I know you will have foreseen that I am going to send you to jail...."

Lighter Conversation Starters

It's hard to be nostalgic when you can't remember anything

My mind works like lightning - one flash and its gone

Madness takes its toll: please have exact change.

There is no 'i' in denial.
br> I am therefore I think (putting Descarte before the horse)