We have all experienced zone-out moments when we know we totally should remember something that has apparently been deleted from our brain's hard drive against our will. That's because the human brain is a haphazard, messy machine that glitches at the slightest, strangest provocation.
However, our old friend science has tracked down some of the completely random things that decide whether or not your memory will choose to function at that particular moment. Things like ...
5Walking Through Doorways
You're standing in a room, looking around, confused. You came in here to get something, but what? You don't remember. You've completely forgotten why you got up from the sofa in the first place, as if the mere act of walking from the living room into the kitchen wiped your memory.
You try to decide if this is the sign of a cripplingly short attention span or early onset Alzheimer's. But don't worry -- these "What was I looking for?" memory lapses happen to all of us, and science has figured out a very weird reason why. Gabriel Radvansky and his cohorts at the University of Notre Dame performed a series of experiments to determine exactly what causes this weird brain cramp. Turns out it's not memory elves, or even plain old stupidity.
It's corn dogs, isn't it? It's totally corn dogs.
It's doorways. Seriously.
Your brain uses a very similar directory system to that of your computer. Only instead of neat folders labeled "Work," "Documents" and "TOTALLY NOT PORN," your brain tends to compartmentalize by physical location. This means that the information readily accessible to you in one room ("I must get a glass of milk to wash down all this delicious fudge") suddenly becomes a lot harder to access when you go to another one ("Why am I in the kitchen? I know it had something to do with the toaster ..."). The moment you cross a doorway, you're essentially sending a signal to your brain that you're in a new environment now and that nothing that happened in that previous one matters, so just flush it.
Radvansky tested this by having students examine a box containing objects such as red cubes and blue spheres. Then, the students tried to remember what those objects were after either walking into another room or just walking that same distance without crossing any doorways. The results were so dramatic that researchers proceeded to redub doorways "event erasers," a name so badass that it is what we're going to call doorways from now on.
"Son? I'm sorry, but I never had a son."
And the effect of doorways is so strong that you don't even have to physically move for those bastards to put the kibosh on your memory. In another experiment, the researchers had people sit at a computer and do the same test, where the new "room" was just an animation on the screen. The effect was exactly the same -- every time their avatar crossed a virtual doorway, their ability to recall objects fell down the forgetting well.
However, our door-riddled culture is not doomed to a collective Memento disease. Saying things out loud as you pass the doorway can apparently thwart the effect. It stands to reason, really -- even if you managed to forget that you entered the office exclaiming that you need to buy cream for your genital warts, you'd probably be reminded plenty of times.
"Hey there, Jerry! Heard you had a big ol' case of Braille-dick."
Isn't it strange how textbooks and official documents just flat out refuse to stay in your head? The words just drip away like water off a duck's back, no matter what Big Textbook tries. And try they do: Short of coming into your house to slap you every time you don't pay attention, they've used every trick to catch your wandering eye, from bolding to italicizing to underlining important terms and sentences like there is no tomorrow.
You know what, all of this academic failure is making you hungry. Now there's one thing you never forget -- the fact that the local burrito joint exists, and what's on their menu, and which day of the month is 2-for-1 quesadillas. Now let's look at their ads, and notice how they do their text:
"Why are you spending all that money on ad people? My nephew can draw."
What the hell? Was somebody stoned when they drew that? In fact, if you look at any restaurant's ad, it's a typographical nightmare. You're mixing four or five different fonts, and interrupting one kind of font with another in mid-sentence ...
"Can we make the ink out of actual syrup so they can't let go of the flier?"
Other times, the text is just a jumbled mess. What the hell are they thinking?
We don't know this for a fact, but we're betting somebody won a bet off of that design.
Actually, they know what textbooks don't: When information is provided in a weird, difficult-to-read font, you are more likely to remember it.
Unless you're really interested in the subject matter, your brain has a tendency to lump anything written in tedious Times New Roman or cock-numbingly dull Courier with all the hundreds of miles of writing that you've ever read in those same, sane, boring fonts. But throw in some Browallia or Candara or Wingdings, and all of a sudden the information begins to catch your eye in a way you never thought possible.
Researchers at Princeton and Indiana University proved this by having one group of people read stories in 16-point Arial and others in the much more difficult to process 12-point Comic Sans MA and 12-point Bodoni MT. Quite simply, they found that the people given the shitty font retained the information better. This was confirmed by a longer 200-person trial where the lucky kids who got their textbooks replaced with doppelgangers with funky fonts retained the material better and got higher test grades. The effect was most noticeable in physics, which is strange, as a physics book written in Comic Sans would be quite close to our definition of hell.
The process behind the phenomenon is simple: When the brain has to work harder at decoding the font, it also spends more time and effort in figuring out just what the hell it's reading and therefore tends to hang on to the information better so we won't force it to go through that shit again.
So the next time you open your laptop to go over your notes for that exam on particle physics, highlight all of the text and switch it to some wacky font where all of the letters are shaped like contorted dongs. You can thank us for the A later.
"I think I finally understand why racism is wrong. Thanks, ridiculous fonts!"