H is for Hyperamnesia

| April 15, 2014

We know that our memory fails to be consistent through time. Many of us associate this effect to a decrease of memory over time. However, there are times in which the opposite is true. The term “hyperamnesia” (or “reminiscence”, as psychologists of the early 20th century referred to it) describes the interesting memory retrieval phenomenon by which increased recall of information occurs in the absence of additional practice. Allow me to report an experiment carried out in order to prove this effect.

The basic experimental paradigm is the following; The first day, participants are given a list of items (words or pictures) to remember. Then they are asked to recall as many items as possible over the course of one week (once per day). If the number of items they are able to recall increases as the days go by, they are experiencing hyperamnesia. This test has been performed comparing two different conditions. In one condition, people are given a list of words to remember, while in the other they are given pictures. The results of this trial show an increase in recall for pictures over the course of the week, while this effect is absent with words (i.e. people come up with new pictures they have remembered during the day but not words), meaning that images are more sensitive to hyperamnesia. This effect is called the “pictorial superiority effect”. What are the reseons for the manifestation of such phenomenon? The truth is we don’t really know. However, we can make suggestions. For example, we may suggest that images represent much richer stimuli compared to symbolic words. They contain more features (specific, techniques, stylistic, remind you of context) and therefore offer the possibility to make new, richer and more numerous associations. More associations means more retrieval cues (in the time period between the end of one recall session and the beginning of the next, the surroundings may offer cues which help participants remember the pictures).

The educational implications of this effect is that concepts are more likely to be remembered experientially if presented as images rather than words. Does this mean that an aesthetic experience is more valuable if the art piece is in the form of an image rather than text as it will be recalled with more ease and hence influence future experiences to a greater extent?