What Does That Mean?!

By Drew Carter

In the field of psychology, there are multiple ways to encode something into long term-memory. While the process of committing information from stimuli to memory is important, what is arguably more important is what types of information causes individuals to be more attentive. To go a step further, what is also of interest is how the meaning of the stimulus can affect the difficulty of committing that stimulus to long-term memory. This pertains to the Levels of Processing Theory. However, before we get to discussing how the levels of processing affects us, I would like to take a moment to explain encoding, as it is crucial to this whole topic.

Encoding is the process of converting stimuli, whether it be visual (light stimuli, perceived by the eyes), acoustic (sound stimuli, perceived by the ears), or semantic (sensory stimuli that has a particular meaning to the individual) stimuli, into memory1. When the different senses, for the different types of stimuli, are activated, neurons in the brain fire to the area of the brain that recognizes the information. For instance, if the eyes perceive that light is reflecting a face, different areas of the brain will be activated then if you saw a pretty sunset2. While this description may not be incredibly enlightening, you just need to understand the basics, so we can move on to how the meanings of words can affect your ability to encode them to memory.

As an overview of the Levels-of-Processing theory, it is a theory which “argued that deeper levels of perceptual processing involving greater cognitive elaboration will result in a more distinctive memory trace and better retention of the information3.” This is basically saying that the more description and importance you can place on a piece of information will cause it to leave a “more distinctive memory trace” which, in turn, will make the information more easily recalled because of the distinctiveness of it. So, if you look at the word “tree” you will recognize this as a word (hopefully). “tree” as a word doesn’t have a whole lot of important meaning. If asked to recall the word at the end of reading this article you may be able to do it, just because I used it as an example. If I asked you what the first word I used was, then you may be lost ( just because there’s no reason for “in” to be meaningful to you). I digress. Now say I asked you to picture tree in your head then describe it. Then you would definitely remember it, because you would reflect at the end of the article, and think about how you described a tree just because you read this silly blog post. Finally, if someone said, think of a tree that you had the best memories around, or in, etc. this would be an even greater depth of processing, because it has become more than just descriptors. Now it has personal meaning.

For example…

Imagine this (or don’t if you actually are). You’re a freshman in college, and midterms are already barreling towards you like a train without brakes. You aren’t doing so well in your intro-level history class because there is just so much darn information to memorize. You are learning about the revolutionary war, and you just can’t remember if the British are coming by sea or by land! Although, to be fair, that could be a no-good Farnsworth’s fault.

Nonetheless, you need a way to permanently engrave this into your thick skull. One way to do this is to associate the information to something that has more meaning to you. Since the two lanterns were hung in the old church, it meant the British were coming by sea. If you want to make the story have more meaning, you might think, my best friend Steve’s house has two lamps on the outside of the entry door, that will remind me about there being TWO lanterns. This way you are taking a generic stimulus (a lantern), and associate it with a more significant meaning. This has a deeper level of processing because every time you see any type of a lantern, you will immediately conjure the picture of your best friend’s house exterior. As a matter of fact, as I write this, I remember vividly the outside of the house I grew up in and my best friend’s, who lived next door. Mine was a yellow house with a green door, his was light grey and white, with maroon shutters. Semantic memories are have a greater level of processing, which leads me to my next point. Information with a greater level of cognitive processing are going to take a longer time to determine their meaning4.

So, if you’re reading this and wondering what you could be doing better to process information and make it easier to retain, remember, the greater the cognitive task, the more distinctiveness it will have later in recall. Spend time to associate what you’re learning with real life examples, and to things you already have a connection to (i.e. your friend Steve) and it will be much easier recalling that information later when you need it most.





1 McLeod, S. A. (2007). Stages of memory – encoding storage and retrieval. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/memory.html

2Mastin, L. (2010). Memory Coding: The Human Memory. Retrieved from The Human Memory Web site: http://www.human-memory.net/processes_encoding.html

3Athey, T. R., & Mcintyre, R. M. (1987). Effect of rater training on rater accuracy: Levels-of-processing theory and social facilitation theory perspectives. Journal of Applied Psychology.

4Juola, J. F., Taylor, G. A., & Young, M. E. (1974). Stimulus Encoding and Decision Processes in Recognition Memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1111-1112.




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