Have you ever played the game of Tetris? The game with different shapes that fall from the top of the screen and you have to organize how they fit into the blocks below. A very simple game that’s really easy to get lost in. It’s over thirty years old and I still found it mildly addictive when I took some time to play it before writing this piece.
The game of Tetris is an amazing visual for how our mind learns. To continue playing the game you have to add shapes into each line of blocks with no empty spaces. Once you fill a line with shapes, you move up to the next line and continue to fill out the spaces by rearranging the shapes as they fall faster and faster from the top of the screen.
We can imagine that the shapes that come from the top of the screen are new information that we learn, and the spaces in the blocks are the places in our brain where we can slot this new information amongst what we already know. Our memory relies on association, meaning that every piece of information in our memory is connected to other pieces in some way or another. If you read something, hear something, or observe something that you would like to remember but it has no association or connection to something you already know, see, or understand it is very very difficult to remember it.
Association or the lack of it is why so many people struggle to remember other peoples names. Sometimes our memory is amazing when we meet a new person and sometimes it is very unreliable. The person’s name that you remember is because your brain has automatically or subconsciously made an association with this person and your environment. It may be their job, their partner, a place they recently visited, where they’re from, it could really be anything but there is an association there. So when you don’t remember people’s names it is not because you have a poor memory, it is because you did not actively or consciously seek out a memorable association with the person’s name.
Have you ever read something, or had something explained to you and understand it there and then but when you try to retell it to somebody else later or use that information in an exam or at work it almost feels like the information is slipping out of your fingertips. You can see it, but can’t string the words together to make true sense of it in your head. That’s a Tetris shape that’s at the edge of the screen, disconnected from all of the other shapes. In your brain, the information lived in your short-term memory, and rationally you understood it, but because you didn’t go that bit further and associate it to something you already know it never made it to your long-term memory.
Next time somebody is explaining a new concept to you, consciously make an effort to build it around your environment or connect it to a similar concept that is familiar to you. Similarly, if you are trying to teach something complex or novel to somebody make the effort to shape it around their environment or something similar that they are already aware of. This is what makes new things ‘sticky’ and is a tool that can be used in personal learning, management, and from my experience is a very effective tool in sales.