The cognitive importance of storytelling

Last week, I shared Dr. Klaus Oberauer’s research into how working memory operates and how multitasking is more fiction than reality. One of the key findings in Dr. Oberauer’s work is that there are three functional components of working memory: the active center of attention that is being processed by the brain, the active data being stored in working memory, and passive working memory that is associatively linked to long-term memory.

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For example, let’s say we’re at a networking event, a mixer or a reception. We may be paying attention to the person in front of us and listening to what they have to say. We may be keeping the name of the person in active working memory. But how often do you remember that person or the dozen other people you meet that evening? What makes one person more memorable than another?

The answer is in Dr. Oberauer’s work – our ability to store data in passive working memory is based on our ability to associate it with information stored in long term memory. We can form stronger links to things we already have stored in our regular memories; thus, we might remember someone more easily if we share associative memories, such as going to the same college or sharing interests in the same TV shows.

So what does this have to do with storytelling? Cognitively, if we remember best when we can create linkages from active working memory to passive working memory to long-term memory by associations, then it makes logical sense that stories with familiar components are more easily recalled. Thus, if we learn to tell stories that contain good flow, entertainment or emotional content, and plentiful associative material, our stories are more likely to be linked to passive working memory and long-term memory; doing so makes our stories more easily recalled later.

This is one of the many reasons that content marketing using pop culture is so powerful and effective; you’re essentially using existing stories and the pre-formed associations to quickly build more links from active working memory to passive working memory to long-term memory. This is why you remember some people more than others, or you recall certain facts more easily than other facts. You probably can’t remember the name of your elected representatives, but you can still recall the ingredients of a Big Mac (and might even be able to sing it).

Take this knowledge and incorporate it into your own content marketing efforts. Add associative elements wherever and whenever you can do so reasonably, so that you maximize the chance of leveraging as many different parts of working and long-term memory as possible.


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Strengths, weaknesses, and Goldilocks

MFA Buddhist Art

Daniel Johnson Jr. recently asked:

For every one of my strengths, there is a balcony and a basement level. The balcony level of a strength is when the strength is showing up at its peak effectiveness. The basement level is when the strength can potentially become a weakness. For example, I’m one to whom strangers are simply friends I haven’t met yet. This means that I meet others and break the ice very easily. This is great when I’m in situations where I need to put myself out there. The basement level of this strength can be in coming across as surfacey: I know many people but not that well. What do you think, sir?

Indeed, this is almost exactly right. Any attribute that we have as human beings has three general grades. Think of it almost like Goldilocks and the three bears from the old fairytale. There is too much of an attribute, too little of an attribute, and a range of “just right”.

Take, for example, the ability to meet new people. Too little of this and you come across as shy or antisocial. Just right and you come across as friendly, eager, and inviting. Too much of this and you come across as shallow, that guy who is passing out business cards like candy at a networking event.

In my martial arts tradition, there are four archetypes that have these ranges, these spectra: Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind. From the Earth, we learn the attribute of confidence and firmness. In the right amount, confidence and Earth energy provide you with the ability to stand your ground when you’re faced with a situation. Too little of it and you are easily overwhelmed. Too much of it and you are stubborn and intransigent even when faced with the need for change.

The Water element is one of dispassionate, scientific thinking. Too little of it and everything is guesswork or corrupted pseudo-scientific thinking, the inability to think clearly about a topic. We see this often today, especially around fad diets and powdered foods and things like the anti-vaccination fraud. The right amount of Water energy allows you to be cool, calm, and collected under pressure. You can make decisions while giving yourself enough distance and time to think. Too much and you’re cold, calculating, and manipulative, totally heartless.

The Fire archetype is all about passion and connection, very much related to Daniel’s question. Too little Fire and you come across as shy, unable to take initiative, and disconnected from yourself and the people around you. The right amount of Fire energy makes you eager, outgoing, and happy to make connections. You are connected to your emotions and passionate about the causes you believe in. Too much and you are a Marilyn Monroe, an Elvis, or a Kurt Cobain whose passion just burns away balance. You self-destruct because you go beyond passion to desperation.

The Wind element is one of benevolence and seeking a higher cause than yourself. Too little, and everything you do in life comes with a “what’s in it for me?” silently (or not so silently) voiced with everything you do. The right amount of Wind energy inspires you to take up causes without necessarily seeking benefits for yourself, recognizing the greater good in life and the role you can play to make the world a better place for all. Too much Wind energy, and you are easily distracted and taken away from your core purpose by every new cause that crosses your desk. You never have enough time or money to be productive so that you can make a difference.

From these archetypes, we learn that any individual strength can be insufficient, present in a balanced amount, or overabundant. Equally important, we learn from these archetypes that each has a counterbalance.

Earth energy is counterbalanced by Wind energy; standing firm and yielding to others are each important at certain times. Water energy is counterbalanced by Fire energy; cool, scientific thinking and passionate, bright outreach each have their place. A deficiency in one allows another to become overabundant. Think about your own personal strengths! What are the counterbalancing attributes to your personal strengths, the things that help balance you out?

Being outgoing is counterbalanced by being introverted, and there is a time and place for each. Being greedy for money even has its place as long as it’s balanced by altruism, just as altruism must have at least some level of counterbalancing greed so that you can be productive, generate resources, and ultimately be able to help the causes you so fervently believe in. Being chaste and being lustful counterbalance each other and there is a time and place for each as well. Think about something regarded as negative like procrastination. Putting off eating junk food would certainly be a twist on a seemingly negative attribute!

The ultimate lesson that the archetypes and our personal strengths teach us is that no attribute in and of itself is good or bad. No attribute is absolutely positive or negative. Everything is relative. Everything has a time and a place that is appropriate, an amount that is in balance and out of balance in either direction, and is devoid of its own values. When you think about yourself and what you need to work on for your personal growth, resist the temptation to label parts of you as good or bad and instead ask, “Am I using this attribute in the appropriate place and time to benefit myself and the world around me most?” In that way, you’ll develop a healthier self-image and see how even perceived negative attributes can be made to serve you.


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Multitasking exacts a hefty mental performance penalty

In a 2002 academic paper, Dr. Klaus Oberauer at the University of Potsdam wanted to see just how limited our working memories are. For background, working memory is your brain’s ability to store and process information in the short-term. It’s the memory you use every day when you’re at the grocery store when you’ve left your list at home. It’s the memory you use at parties after you’ve just met someone and exchanged names. It’s the memory you use when you’re writing an email or updating slides in a presentation from a spreadsheet you just closed…

… and it’s incredibly volatile. Dr. Oberauer did extensive research that eventually broke what we call working memory into three discrete kinds of brain operations: background data, foreground data, and center of attention (focus). Background working memory is information that’s partially rooted in our long-term memory. When you see a corporate logo, you can immediately fish up relevant information from your longer-term memory about what that logo means to you. Foreground data is information you keep in your head for immediate processing, and one item in the foreground data is specially selected by the brain for the actual processing:

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In his research, Dr. Oberauer looked at what made working memory operate less or more efficiently, and one of the findings of his research was that our brains apply “tags” or “markers” to the items in working memory that allow us to recall information very quickly in order to process it. Imagine if you were a primitive hunter on the savannah. You’d want to pay attention to your immediate surroundings and the lion in front of you that wants to eat you. Even while you keep an eye on the lion, your working memory assigns tags such as stumbling hazards on the ground so that you don’t have to divert your attention very long from the lion to walk around. If you had to reload all of your working memory from scratch each time, you’d incur significant cognitive delays, during which the lion would dine on you.

However, if you have multiple similar tags, your brain gets confused as some memory tags will overwrite others. A simple example of this is what happens when you try to write while someone is talking to you or the television is on. Your brain will sometimes confuse the data in working memory and you’ll accidentally write what you saw on TV versus what you intended to write. You can have multiple sets of different, discrete tags as long as they don’t overlap; for example, you can remember a phone number and the last song you heard on the radio because your brain doesn’t need to process them together. Try to remember two phone numbers or a phone number and a nine-digit postal code, and you’ve got a recipe for mixups.

So what does this have to do with multitasking? Does this look at all familiar?

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Here’s the problem with this environment. So many of these different tabs and reminders open are of very similar nature. They’re highly likely to overwrite each other, which means you will incur a significant mental processing delay every time you tab to something else or get interrupted by another reminder. Your brain, instead of being able to keep its working memory sorted out and organized with discrete memory tags, will instead get everything jumbled all of the time, and you’ll instead be constantly having to reload from background data. The moment you find that you’re asking yourself, “What was I doing?”, you know you’re reloading from background data, because foreground data access is almost instantaneous.

The solution? Shut everything down as often as possible. Browse one item at a time, read one email at a time. Turn off preview modes. Turn off notifications. Turn off anything that’s going to risk overwriting your short term memory tags, and you’ll be able to access your foreground data working memory much faster, get more done, and feel much less frustrated.


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