Experiment (Dooling & Lachmann, 1971)

By | April 7, 2008

Try this experiment. Read the following passage, once only. Then, click through and read the rest of this post.

With hocked gems financing him, our hero bravely defied all scornful laughter that tried to prevent his scheme. “Your eyes deceive,” he had said. “An egg, not a table, correctly typifies this unexplored planet.” Now three sturdy sisters sought proof. Forging along, sometimes through calm vastness, yet more often very turbulent peaks and valleys, days became weeks as many doubters spread fearful rumours about the edge. At last from nowhere welcome winged creatures appeared, signifying momentous success.

Did you remember much of it? Probably not, right?

Suppose I told you, though, that the passage is about Columbus’ discovery of the Americas in 1492. Try reading it again. See how much easier it is to comprehend and remember?

This is from a paper by Dooling & Lachmann [1], and shows how our ability to remember things is heavily contingent on the availability of a framework to hang them on. Without context, the phrases are almost nonsensical, and thus the brain discards them quite rapidly. Knowing the context makes the passage both easier to understand and easier to remember – comprehension aids retention.

I noticed the a really strong effect trying this. What effect did it have on you?


  1. Dooling, D.J., & Lachmann, R., (1971). Effects of Comprehension on Retention of Prose. Journal of
    Experimental Psychology, 88(2), pp. 216-222