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Throw away that notepad. Really

March 30, 2015

By George Brown, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

As a young man I recall entering a one-on-one meeting with my boss and not bringing a notepad with me.  The boss promptly asked me, “How do you plan to remember everything we speak about and recall what you need to do after this meeting if you don’t take notes?”  From that day forward I always carried a notepad into every meeting I attended.  I still do now, 35 years later, but that ever-present notepad may be what is causing my memory loss.

According to psychologists at Mount St. Vincent University in New York, a notepad might be the reason for forgetting what you hear in a meeting or classroom.  According to their research, once our brains realize we’re taking notes, it decides there is no need to remember, saying to itself, “I’ll leave room for other important things.”  Researchers call this phenomenon “intentional forgetting.”

To study this issue, the researchers asked subjects to play a game where they had to memorize cards and later determine where each card was after being placed face down, similar to the old  quiz show “Concentration” or the childhood game “Memory.”  

Half of the subjects simply studied the cards before they were turned down while another group was allowed to use a notepad.  Then the researchers took away the notes and made both groups try to match up the cards appropriately. The note-takers didn’t fare as well as those who knew they had to concentrate harder to correctly reveal the matches later.

The researchers concluded that “participants adopted an intentional-forgetting strategy when using notes to store certain types of information.” In other words, taking notes didn’t improve memory; it made recall worse because the brain was forgetting as fast as its owner was writing.

This research confirms a number of other research findings that reliance on external aids impacts how information about products and locations is taken in and retained.

Think about our other common habits.  As children we Baby Boomers and Gen Xers memorized phone numbers.  Today we trust our smart phones to remember them for us, right along with our Millenial colleagues.  Lose the smart phone and chances are you won’t be making very many phone calls. In the past when we drove our cars to new locations we studied a map, memorized the turns and even specific landmarks. With a GPS we get there just fine, but we put very little in our memories for the next time we go there. So it is all very believable.  

All that being said, I will still carry a notepad into the next meeting I attend.

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