The Nature Of Memory


There’s a big difference, to me, between coaching-speak and athlete-speak. Similarly, between scientific babble and real-talk.

All the stuff I wrote on neural pathways is classic science-talk. My apologies. I don’t enjoy writing or speaking like that.

Allow me to rephrase.

In Made To Stick, they ask readers to give some thought to the following sentences spending five to ten seconds with each. Give it a try:

  • Remember the capital of Kansas.
  • Remember the first line of the song “Hey Jude” (or some other song that you know well).
  • Remember the Mona Lisa.
  • Remember the house where you spent most of your childhood.
  • Remember the definition of “truth.”
  • Remember the definition of “watermelon.”

This exercise was taken from David Rubin from Duke University and helps to illustrate the nature of memory.

By example, remembering the capital of Kansas is quite abstract for most people. In asking a friend to remember “Hey Jude,” he talked about seeing, vividly, Paul McCartney singing the song, and in fact, could hear him in singing the song as he gave the sentence thought.

Thinking of Mona Lisa, for me, struck a visual image of the painting; whereas, when I thought of my childhood home, I began to salivate at the thought, taste and smell of some good home cooking. (Just ate, so it wasn’t hunger).

What did you come up with around a definition of truth? According to the authors, most people don’t have a “pre-formulated definition to pluck out of memory, as with the Mona Lisa. You might have had to create a definition on the fly that seemed to fit with your sense of what ‘truth’ means.”

Like in my case where my sense of taste and smell were engaged, your definition of watermelon might have done the same. Thoughts of the colour, texture and sweet taste of the fruit might have been twisted in thought to formulate a definition.

Most of us have a nasty habit of compartmentalizing memory. It’s the deductive reasoners in us all. It makes sense on the surface. We treat memories like things that are filed away in a neat storage cabinet. Ready, that is, to be accessed at a whim.

It’s as if memory and remembering is about putting things in our collective “cerebral filing cabinets.” This analogy makes sense, in theory.

Yet, allow yourself to think back to your experience with Rubin’s sentences above. Memories and remembering, as you may have experienced, are not necessarily sequential and neatly organized into filing cabinets. There are different kinds of cabinets for different kinds of memories. Further, the authors suggest, “it feels different to remember different kinds of things.”

How then, you may ask, does this connect to decision training and basketball of all things?

Well, to go back to my post Connecting the Dots, I rambled on about what happens when you break down decision making – when training athletes – into various ‘reads.’ For instance, when teaching ball screens, coaches will often have athletes go through a bunch of reps with the defender going over the screen. And then, they’ll do a bunch of reps with the defender going under the screen. Finally, they allow the athletes to compete it with the intention that the work done previously, will be consolidated and refined with the athlete successfully making the correct decisions in the game-like situation.

What I had hoped to express previously was that by separating the ‘reads,’ the memory of both are in fact filed away in separate cabinets. Intuition says that we should be able to access them instantly within the competition; however, like Rubin’s sentences demonstrate, that’s just not the way accessing past experience works. The scenario in which the defender goes over the screen and the one where the defender goes under the screen are filed away in separate ‘mental drawers.’

What we’re hoping, as coaches, is that they’re even filed in the same cabinet(…!).

(Okay, I’m being a little facetious with that last sentence, but it’s more like my excitement as I’ve never before been able to articulate this thought like this before. Stay with me for a little longer.)


Here’s how they’ve summed up things up in Made To Stick

“Memory, then, is not like a single filing cabinet. It’s more like Velcro. If you look at the two sides of Velcro material, you’ll see that one is covered with thousands of tiny hooks and the other is covered with thousands of tiny loops. When you press the two sides together, a huge number of hooks get snagged inside the hoops, and that’s what causes Velcro to seal.

Your brain hosts a truly staggering number of loops. The more hooks an idea has, the better it will cling to memory. Your childhood home has a gazillion hooks in your brain. A new credit card number has one, if it’s lucky.

Great teachers have a knack for multiplying the hooks in a particular idea.

To go back to skill development when combined with decision training, an effective way to ensure that athletes file things away in the same cabinet is to rep them at the same time (why and when). Then once the mind understands and knows where the memory is stored, you can go back and tighten up the mechanics (what and how).

Look, I know that “the best” will find the files, so to speak, and reorganize things as they put the pieces together. What happens to those who don’t? Or, those who only connect some of the dots?

I’ve seen some guys over the years at the NBA level who were blind. They lacked vision and just couldn’t locate prior experience to draw on. They had not developed the skill set, or mental capability, to read and react in a game concept. Some may say, oh well, but I can think of a few GMs who’d like to save the $12M over 4-years on a rookie contract.

I’d argue that athleticism, recruiting and strategic/tactical adjustments have the been the cure all for most. In high school and below, I think turnover from graduation can also be sited.

I definitely don’t have all the answers. I’m still trying to (re)formulate things in my mind. Don’t know where the dust will settle. In fact, this is a process of continual experimentation.

I guess what I’m trying to do here is ignite a keen interest in others to challenge convention. Not to just do things the same way because that’s the way it’s always been done. There is synergy in collaboration.


When shown a new path, the old one just seems to loose its lustre.

[ RELATED: Psychology Today – It turns out that everything I thought I knew about learning is wrong! ]