Aimee Liu

Novelist, Essayist, Teacher

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To Make Your Writing More Memorable...


I tripped across a fascinating study the other day that offered an essential nugget of scientific insight for writers, and I want to share it with you here.

Yale researchers have been studying the “stickiness” of memory:

The human brain filters through a flood of experiences to create specific memories. Why do some of the experiences in this deluge of sensory information become “memorable,” while most are discarded by the brain?

They used a computational model and behavioral study using visual imagery to answer this question. Subjects were shown a rapid series of pictures, then asked to recall them. It turns out, the most memorable scenes were the ones that didn’t immediately make sense.

For example, a picture of a bright red fire hydrant deep in the woods would be easier to remember than an image of a bunch of deer bounding through the same forest. A mountain with a clown standing on the summit is more memorable than a peak with a climber planting a flag. A beach studded with giraffes is mentally stickier than a beach littered with starfish.

“The mind prioritizes remembering things that it is not able to explain very well,” said Ilker Yildirim, an assistant professor of psychology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and senior author of the paper. “If a scene is predictable, and not surprising, it might be ignored.””

This got me thinking about the many ways this rule applies to art— and how we can use it to make our writing more memorable. So that’s what I decided to explore in this week’s post.


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