How we recall the details of a good book

January 13, 2016 - 06:21

We retain the main aspects of the plot in a coherent story. But an erratic tale shifts our attention to the nuances, shows new research.

A story with a well-established plot activates different areas of the brain than one with a more erratic storyline, and has implications for the types of information we’re able to recall afterwards (Photo: Shutterstock)

What do you remember most when you read a crime novel?

Do you remember what colour sweater the detective wore or the marks on the killer's car? Do you remember the vital clues that finally solved the mystery or the murderer’s motive?

According to a new study, different parts of the brain are activated and recall different types of information depending on how coherent the plot is.

"When the subjects heard a coherent story that hung together reallyflows well, they were better at answering questions important to the storyline,” says lead-author Kristian Tylén, associate professor at the department of communication and culture at Aarhus University, Denmark.

“But they couldn’t remember the [small] factual details like a person's age or car colour as well as those who heard a less coherent story” says Tylén.

We remember factual details of erratic storylines

In the new study, 24 volunteers heard six different crime stories, broken up into 20-second segments, which were interrupted by 20-second segments of randomly selected stories.

The volunteers generally remembered the coherent segments despite the interruptions, and they specifically remembered the main aspects of the plot--the motive for the murder, how main events were connected, or how the murder was solved.

When it came to the non-coherent segments, volunteers mostly recalled the smaller details that were peripheral to the main plot line, including the characters' clothes, age, or make of their cars.

"We notice different things when we can integrate information in context, compared to when we’re presented with information that may not be [well] integrated into the plot,” says Tylén, adding that memory is dynamic. What we remember depends on the kind of information we receive and the tasks we need to solve.

Our brains are particularly good at figuring out which details are the most important for the story, and we focus our energy on them, says Tylén.

"We’re good at recognising what's important. The more we get of the plot, the better we are at [predicting] it. We’re good at predicting where a story is headed when [it] follows a classic template," says Tylén.

Stories activate specific areas of the brain

The new study is described as exciting and compelling by Associate Professor Osman Skjold Kingo, who studies memory at the Department of Psychology at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

According to him, the findings fit with existing knowledge and a number of theories.

"School Children who come to school the first day, and don’t yet know how the school day functions, will remember details like the colour of a bag, or what the lights look like. But these kind of details fade into the background when the regular routine sets in," says Kingo.

But what excites him the most, are the results of the MRI brain scans of the volunteers, which were taken as they listened to the stories.

They showed that two different parts of the brain were activated depending on whether the subjects were listening to the coherent story or the completely random segments.

These results are “elegant” and take the study “one step further” according to Kingo.

“The way we remember, matches specific areas of the brain,” he says.

“The more information we need to keep track of, the more specific parts of the brain become activated," said Kingo.

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Read the Danish version of this article on Videnskab.dk
 

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Translated by
Catherine Jex