I have to apologise for all these one-word post titles. Clearly, my OCD is getting the better of me. Anyway, here’s another one. [I am pretty sure the photo credit goes to Nicholas Planet, film-maker extraordinaire – taken at Plum Island, MA]15534_664874698678_6718642_38628659_7015175_n

In 2007, James Nairne and colleagues published an odd paper describing what they called the “survival processing” effect on memory. A few years later, this paper is a classic of its kind. In fact, I have already covered the topic briefly here.

The idea of the survival processing is simple, captivating, and hotly debated. Memory serves a very important function in our everyday life, but it also has a critical evolutionary, or distal, function: it increases our chances of survival. For example, once I learn not to stick my fingers in the electrical outlets, preserving this piece of information in memory can prove vital – losing it might kill me. Following this logic, Nairne et al. suggest that, since our memory systems have evolved “to help us remember certain kinds of information better than others” (p. 263), our memory should be better for survival-relevant information.

So far, nothing too odd. We can all intuitively agree with that notion. For instance, it should be easier to remember where last we saw a dangerous snake, than where last we saw a pigeon. However, the intriguing thing is how Nairne et al. (2007; and subsequent papers) go about eliciting this survival effect. In these studies, people are typically asked to imagine how relevant certain objects would be within a scenario – including a survival-related scenario. Overwhelmingly, the survival-related scenario – normally a “grasslands of a foreign land, without any basic survival materials” (p. 264) – tends to produce the best recall of all. I can also testify this to be true from personal experience, since my colleague Dr Dan Clark and I have found this effect to be very powerful, despite our best attempts at sabotage.

And that’s it for today. Lots to read out there if you are interested in this topic and have a nice Spring.


About Davide Bruno

Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University
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