The Velcro Theory of Memory





1941 was a special year for electrical engineer George de Mestral.  On a walk through the Swiss Alps, his K9 companion causally brushed against a plant that would change the world of adhesion forever: a Burdock.

Upon returning home he spent considerable time removing the unwelcome hitchhikers from not only his dog, but also himself.  Becoming “bioinspired” and realizing the potential for the Burdock seed to function as a model for reusable adhesion, Mestral observed his new collection under a microscope.
The key, he quickly understood, to the Burdock’s sticky effectiveness were tiny crochet needles extending from the seed that become entwined with anything unlucky to brush against it.  Burdock seeds are infamous because they stick to everything using ingenious harpoon like extensions that violently grab a hold of anything furry or fabric.

The insight didn’t take long, but getting a patent did (he finally received it in 1955).  Mestral is credited for inventing Velcro, the ubiquitous household item that is used in virtually all capacities of life; from heart surgery to fashion.

Always in search of useful and meaningful analogies to describe the brain, psychologists use Velcro to describe the acquisition of knowledge and the Velcro Theory of Memory has gained recognition after the Heath brothers briefly discuss it in the their recent best seller Made To Stick.

As educators, we can appreciate a helpful analogy.  This article will discuss the transformation of

Memory is the transformation of external stimuli to neuronal impulses that result in altered synaptic connections to store sensation; the more elaborately an experience is encoded, the deeper it is learned.”

to

“Memory is like Velcro.  The more hooks an experience has, the better it is remembered.”


Both definitions are mine (not in conception); the first one any neuroscientist can poke holes in, the second one any layperson can comprehend.

Why does the analogy work?

As we go through our daily business, our brain is bombarded with sensation.  Sensation comes in many forms from tactile experience to communicated ideas.  Since it would be absolutely overwhelming for our brain to store every experience and idea, it needs a filter to rid itself of unnecessary noise.

The brain readily filters out anything that it “decides” is unneeded; in the realm of education and in the brains of the learners, it is often our instruction that is left on the wayside.

Ideas that stick and last have Velcro hooks.  The more Velcro hooks an idea has, the easier it sticks and the longer it is kept.

The analogy makes use of an idea getting “stuck” into the brain. So we understand the idea as the Velcro.  But what is the fabric?

The fabric in the analogy is previous knowledge residing in the brain.  As we filter experience we attach and relate what is currently going on with knowledge already residing in the brain.

Even adding this component, the analogy does not become more intricate and unusable, the same core idea still applies: the more hooks an idea has, the easier it sticks to things already known.

The idea is intuitive.

The ideas that stick in our brain, or remembered, have predictable characteristics.  Said differently, things that are learned easily have similar components.  Expressed differently even once more: there are ways to add hooks to ideas to make them stickier.

As an educator: you can add hooks to your content to make it stickier.

HOW?!?! You’re screaming at the screen! 

Describing the characteristics to give your content hooks is beyond the scope of this article and is the topic of the Heath brother’s book.  But in general:

-Making your content emotional adds hooks

-Incorporating narratives add hooks


Each bullet point deserves it own article, and you’ll definitely get the details on this website.

In the meantime, read Made To Stick.

How do you add hooks to your content?  Connect with The Pragmatic TV Teacher and share

Thanks for reading!


Photo Credit: Burdock

1 comment:

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