The Memory Bug - Brain Friendly Training in the Workplace

The Brain

The brain is by far the most complicated organ in your body. It is the most advanced computer that has ever existed. However, it comes with one big bug..


No matter how rested we are or how alert, memory is still imperfect. We all know that memory is a key part of learning both in and out of the workplace and finding ways to help employees to remember, use and apply what they have learnt is the holy grail for organisations, L&D professionals and managers. Memory is key to actually changing behaviour, and ultimately boosts return on investment.

To look into why the memory bug happens, the people at the Journal of Experimental Psychology took a look into why we forget and how to improve our memory, and they suggest an unusual strategy for improving it; Drawing

Studying Memory Boosting

Ever since 1973, investigators have been studying the memory-boosting technique called 'Dual-Coding'. In its basic form, this works by giving the brain a combination of both thinking about an object or activity and drawing a picture of it. By doing this, the brain then remembers it better.

So how do we boost the recall?

Psychologist Jeffrey D. Wammes and his team recruited a sample group of students and ran seven different trials. 

The Trials

The scientists started with a list of 80 simple words that were easy to draw such as balloon, kite, pear, peanut and shoe. 30 of these words were flashed onto a screen randomly, along with instructions to either draw the object or write down its name. After the 30 words had been shown, each student would listen to a series of tones and were asked to identify whether each tone was low, high or medium-pitched to take their mind off what they had just done. The aim was to help the memories of the 30 words vanish, or imbed into their memory.

They were then asked to write down as many objects as they could remember. 

In most of the trials, the students got 40 seconds to draw their picture, but in some, they got just four seconds. Some were instructed to draw the object or write the word. For others, they would have to list its descriptive characteristics. In another variant, they would be asked to visualize the object. In yet another, they would write the word as elaborately and decoratively as possible.

The Results

No matter how many variations of the test the researchers ran, one result was scored consistently higher than any other; Drawing the object beat every other option, every single time.

Wammes said “We observed a significant recall advantage for words that were drawn as compared to those that were written. Participants often recalled more than twice as many drawn words.”

Just why this is the case is not clear. One past theory is that drawing requires a deeper 'LoP' or 'level of processing'. The trial which asked the students to list the characteristics of an object had a deep LoP too and this didn’t make a difference. 

Another theory has been that drawing simply takes longer however, the four-second trial appeared to overrule this theory.

Wammes and his group generally concluded that drawing encourages “a seamless integration of semantic, visual and motor aspects of a memory trace" and it will obviously take more work to find out why drawing positively impacts memory. For now though all we know is that the technique works and provides a long-awaited bug fix for the computer inside your head.

How Do We Apply This In the Workplace?

The use of drawing and images is one key element of the 'brain-friendly learning' that I promote with my clients. My focus is all about learning designed around how the brain learns best. 

I would encourage learning and development professionals and managers to think about how you might embed drawing into any learning, development, team meeting or coaching sessions. A technique to consider may be asking groups to prepare feedback on a topic using only pictures.  

Encourage subjects to draw how things look, sound and feel at that moment and encourage people to draw a vision board to represent their goals and how they would like things to be.

In my experience, despite initial confusion at being asked to draw something (putting them a little out of their comfort zone!) these images are often really powerful and stick in people's minds long after the session has ended. This happens in a way that words do not. As a simple but effective follow up to any session, memories can be further reinforced by sending out photos of the drawings afterwards.

You can watch more about the memory bug on this video.