The Movie Theater Experience

The alternative to memorizing or superficial verbal processing is absorption. This is what it means to dive in to the text. Get immersed in it. Generate images. Relate it to your other classes. Imagine performing the actions that are described in the text, or imagine you carrying out the experiments.

What do expert memorizers, sports fans, and musicians demonstrate?

Expert memorizers take an interest in the material they want to memorize and inspect the internal details of it. This type of activity is familiar to any sports fan who analyzes an important athletic contest, or any musician who learns the details of a favorite song. Superior memory occurs when the inner details of a situation are perceived with fascination.

This state of mind might be called the movie theater experience because it occurs naturally when we watch a good movie. In a movie theater, where the room is dark, the picture is large, and the sound is of high quality, people become absorbed in the details of what is in front of them. If the movie is good, the result is a deep sense of involvement.

How does the movie theater experience differ from typical memorization approaches?

Natural memory through absorption

The movie theater experience is a powerful aid to memory. The average moviegoer could repeat the plot and many details of a good movie after seeing it only once, and even more after seeing it twice. A tremendous amount of information is "memorized" in a short time. Yet such a person does not try to memorize. He or she does not watch the movie thinking, "I must remember this" or "How do I recall what happened in the last scene?" The memory comes naturally due to the state of absorption.

A similar state can occur during pleasure reading. Many people report a sense of waking up from a dream when they reach the end of a good book. That shows deep involvement of imagination. A person who has such a feeling after reading could probably report a tremendous amount of information about the book, without ever trying to memorize it, just like the person who gets deeply involved in a movie.

Unfortunately, not every book is enjoyable, just as not every movie is enjoyable. Reading is not as easy as watching a movie, and not every student in college is capable of reading at the college level as defined by standardized tests of reading ability.

How many students in a large introductory psychology class were familiar with enjoyable absorption in reading?

The problem is aggravated by the fact that some students do little pleasure reading. When I asked a large introductory psychology class how many of them were familiar with the sensation of waking up from a dream, after reading a good book, about two-thirds of the hands went up. The implication was that about a third of students had no personal experience with a trancelike state of absorption during reading. This called for some missionary work. I had to convince those students that such a thing was possible! They could actually lose track of time because they were so deeply involved in reading. If it can happen in any college class, it should happen with introductory psychology class, because psychology covers many interesting topics. If you have never gotten "absorbed" while reading, give it a try. It is possible, and it can happen.

Incidentally, this state of absorption typically does not happen if there are excessive interruptions. The details of a movie are not easily absorbed if the movie is on the TV playing in the background while a person attends to something else. For similar reasons, it is probably not a good idea to study with the TV going on or while attention-grabbing music is playing.

What can break the spell in a movie, and what are the implications for studying?

Some students report that they can study effectively to music that has no vocal track, or to music that is very familiar to them, because it does not grab attention. However, for most people, the ideal environment for absorption is an environment with no distractions. That is why we do not like it when people throw popcorn or talk to their neighbors during a movie. It breaks the spell. Distractions during deep reading can have the same effect: they break the spell and ruin enjoyment.

The biggest problem, for some students, is getting interested in what they are studying. Here there are no easy answers. People genuinely differ in what topics or chapters they find interesting. I found over the years that the same exact chapters might be singled out as love and hate objects by different students. Some people hate Chapter 5 (Conditioning); others say it is their favorite. The same thing happened with Chapter 7 (Cognition). Many students love animals, and for some them Chapter 8 (Animal Behavior and Cognition) was be the high point of the book, while others said they have no interest in studying animals. A textbook writer could go crazy trying to please everybody.

However, almost everybody likes Chapter 16 (Sex, Friendship and Love or "SFL"), and the test scores show it. People who have struggled all term suddenly learn effortlessly. Obviously the ability to take interest in the subject matter is crucial to effortless learning and memory.

Sometimes you can take an active role in making a subject matter more interesting for yourself. When I was a student studying the brain, I continually reminded myself of the fact that I was a brain studying how brains worked and that it was amazing humans had evolved to the point where they could study the mechanisms underlying their own thought processes. That might not hit your buttons, but it worked for me. Use whatever works for you.

How has the author tried to encourage interest in the subject matter?

One way a textbook author can help out is by using stories and examples. Examples make an abstract idea into something concrete that a person can grasp. Stories are naturally interesting and easy to understand for humans. I use all the examples and true stories I can. Many of the stories are essays by previous introductory psychology students. These are marked "Author's Files" and are used by permission.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey