The Von Restorff Effect, or Why You Will Remember a Flaming Cat Better Than a Regular One

Alright, what did you have for lunch last Sunday?

Did you remember? If you’re like me, and don’t have a superhuman memory, you probably forgot. Why’s that?

Well, that lunch wasn’t all that memorable probably. Imagine if you ate a live beating cobra heart whole (a Vietnamese delicacy)! Now that would be something you remembered! That’s because it was dramatic and crazy!

The Von Restorff Effect

Humans have a tendency to remember things that stick out because of strong emotions or dramatic features. This is called the Von Restorff Effect. The formal way of stating this effect is the following: “when multiple homogeneous stimuli are presented, the stimulus that differs from the rest is more likely to be remembered” (from a research study on the subject). In English, this means that when we are shown a series of things, we are going to remember the things that stand out.

Let’s do a little experiment. Look at the following people:

What do you remember?

How about the person in the top right corner? Nothing?

All right, how about third row down, two from the left? Nada?

Fine, how about the lipstick color of anyone in a pink dress? Zilch?

Alright, how about the one guy in a metal band shirt? Bingo!

Now, you were able to remember that person because he was so different from everyone else in the pictures.

A reason this effect is so prominent is because your mind and attention is drawn to the thing that stands out because it is different. Let’s try another example:

These pictures were from a Colgate ad campaign. The goal was to show that when you have something in your teeth, people won’t notice other weird things. For example, the extra finger on the lady in picture one, the missing ear in picture two, and the phantom hand in picture three. Why didn’t you notice those things? Because your attention was drawn to the one thing that was glaringly out of place: the leftover food in the man’s tooth.

Yes, if you noticed those weird things, they would have stood out. But because you had not noticed them, all you remembered was the food in the man’s tooth.

What Can We Do With It?

Alright, so next time you remember something that really stood out you’ll know why. But what use does this information have?

Well let’s say we want to remember something. Maybe we don’t want to forget to give your dog some water in the morning. So, to remember to give our dog water we may imagine our dog catching on fire because they became so dehydrated. We are far more likely to remember this than just thinking to ourselves “we need to give the dog water.”

This also works with any other memory technique you may want to use. For example, if you want to have memorable images for your linking method, then make sure to make them dramatic and stand out from what you see in your normal life. Or if you would like to use the memory palace technique, then make each of your loci very memorable.

Making Your Memories Dramatic

Just like everything else taught on this website, mastering the Von Restorff effect is a skill. One day you won’t wake up and be able to create crazy and unique images for everything you come across. You will have to practice and master some basic rules.

  1. Make Sure Your Crazy Things are Unique. Yes, it may help you to remember to give water to your dog when the image is of your dog on fire, but if for every memory remotely related to hydration you use something on fire, then those memories will lose their uniqueness. So remember, don’t overuse mental imagery, and make sure to think of images you have never used before.
  2. Think Outside the Box. I know, I know. This rule is easier said than done. However, it is important. So, next time you have to memorize something, don’t go for the first image that pops in your head. Try to think of crazier images. As you do this more and push yourself to come up with crazier ideas, you’ll definitely get better at this one.
  3. Take a Break or Change It Up If You’re Having Trouble. You’re not always going to be ready to think of crazy imagery, so if you’re having a mental block, change it up. Changing it up can mean taking a break until you are in a more creative mood, or you can try something else. Personally, kicking around a soccer ball helps me come up with new ideas, but you can do anything physical to get the mental gears turning.

And like I’ve mentioned several times now, this all comes with practice. When you first start out, you will not be amazing at coming up with these crazy images, but as you do this more and more, you will get a sense for what sticks and what doesn’t. Some things that work for me are:

  1. Funny Images. We remember funny, so next time you want to remember something, try to choose a funny image because those really stick. Bonus Points if its original.
  2. Violent Images. Now I’m not talking serial killer level stuff here, but if you imagine a bird getting eaten, you’re probably going to remember that pretty well.
  3. Weird, Like Really Weird. Red toe fungus growing out of a mouse’s ear? Memorable! A purple bear eating potatoes out of an oven set to -100 Farenheit? Memorable!
  4. Scary Images. I don’t do scary. Personally, I love to sleep well at night, but I’m sure this will work for some of you out there.

Now that you have all of this information, go out there and apply it! Anytime you are memorizing something create dramatic and crazy images so they stick!

Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them in the comments below.

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