Key concepts

Have you ever wondered why some things are easy to recall whereas others need hours of study? For example you might be able to recollect what happened at your birthday party without any practice, but you need hours of study before you can recite a few lines for a theater play. Our mind stores and remembers information in fascinating ways. Remember to do this activity, and you will be surprised at what your memory can do for you!

You might have noticed human memory often fails to produce an exact replica of what was, but it excels at creating a reconstruction or interpretation. If you hear a story or explanation, you quickly pick up the essence of it. Your mind jumps in to classify, label, fill in or even distort details so the story or explanation makes sense to you; it makes connections to knowledge already in your memory. That interpretation can be stored in your memory and is rather easy to recall—much easier than remembering an exact copy of the story or explanation you heard. It takes a lot of effort to store an exact copy so that you can reproduce it later.

There might be a reason why nature has evolved in such a way. This flexible method of storing information allows you to more easily combine separate ideas and make connections—or to recognize the known in unknown situations. You can change your viewpoint and change how you remember things accordingly. It seems memory is designed so we can easily use and generalize our recollections, which lets us plan and do better in the future—a valuable survival skill! Being able to remember exactly what happened or what was said, read or heard might not be as important for survival.


  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Partner (if you would like someone to read a written list for you)
  • Volunteers (optional)


  • Gather your materials, and get ready to test your memory.


  • Read the following list of words, or ask your partner to read the list aloud for you: bed, dreams, cozy, rest, night, tent, blanket, yawn, snore, nap. We will come back to this list later in the activity.
  • Draw a familiar object from memory. If you use money, draw a coin or bill you use frequently. If you are not that familiar with money, choose an object you use or see frequently that has a fair amount of detail. It could be the wrapper of your favorite snack, a soap bottle, a piece of artwork hanging in your living room, etcetera. It is important to add as many details as you can remember. Do not worry about your drawing skills—this activity is about remembering details. Is it easy to recall how the object looks? Do you feel unsure about some of the details?
  • If you have the object you drew available, compare your drawing with the real object. Are the details in your drawing placed correctly? Did you accurately remember how the object looked? If you did, why do you think this was the case? If you did not, why do you think it can be hard to accurately remember how objects look—even the ones you see frequently?
  • Back to the list of words—here are three: bed, car and sleep. Which of these words was or were part of the original list? How sure do you feel about your answer?
  • Look back at the list or have someone read the words for you. Were you correct?
  • If you are like most people, you thought “sleep” was part of the list, but it was not. Why do you think most people think this word was part of the original list? What could this tell us about memory?
  • Extra: Do you think it is necessary to distract the mind between hearing or reading the list of words and the question about which words were part of it? Find some volunteers to try it out!
  • Extra: Do you think the list: paper, story, reading, magazine, school, study, pencil and chapter can trick people into believing the word “book” was part of it? Why do you think this? Be sure to test it on some volunteers!
  • Extra: Can you create a list of words that can trick people into believing a different word was part of it?

Observations and results
Was it hard to accurately remember the details of an object you see frequently? Were you convinced “sleep” was a word that appeared in the list? If that was the case, you are like most people. Your memory rarely records an exact copy of what was. Rather it reconstructs what was while keeping what our mind identified as the essence intact.

Your memory stores enough information to easily recognize objects you see or use frequently because that is all you need to perform well in daily tasks. Unless you paid very close attention to the details at some point in the past, your memory did not store them, therefore you cannot recall them when asked to make a drawing. If you compared your drawing with the real object and identified the details that were distorted or left out, you will probably remember more details the next time you draw this object. Paying attention in a meaningful way helps build memory.

The test with the 10 words also shows how your memory is good at recalling the general idea—the concept—but not the exact words. Did you notice all the words in the list revolve around the concept of sleep? The mind picks this up and remembers it—and when asked later it is convinced “sleep” was part of the list.

More to explore
Study Skills Science: Investigating Memory Mnemonics, from Scientific American
Sentient Skills Science: What Makes Some Memories So Memorable?, from Scientific American
Don’t Forget! Test and Trick Your Short-Term Memory, from Scientific American
Science Activities for All Ages!, from Science Buddies

This activity brought to you in partnership with Science Buddies

Science Buddies