Encoding specificity

If you lose your keys when you’re drunk and you want to get your keys back, you should get drunk again.

Encoding specificity is a principle in cognitive science which posits that memories are stored contextually – that it’s not just the memory that’s encoded, but a host of related material which helps at the point of recollection.

If you get drunk again and remember you lost your keys (you may have other things on your inebriated mind), research suggests you are more likely to remember where you’ve lost them than if you attempted to recall while on the dry. The context helps.

Encoding specificity is also responsible for a very widespread phenomenon among readers: remembering how a book felt when one read it, whether one liked it or not, even if hardly any memory of the book content remains.

‘What was it about?’

‘Can’t remember, but I loved it’

Reading is not just a cognitive act, but an emotional exchange as well between the reader and the book. Cognition and emotion can’t be separated. They are both part of the experience of reading, which is an embodied experience. Some books go straight to the bone, and not just metaphorically. A book may make us angry, or sad, or relieved or frustrated. Some can make us sick. The book looks us in the eye – always in the eye – and tells us, you will remember me, or you’d better remember me, or don’t you dare remember me. And then it goes back into the funereal silence of the page until a new reader picks it up again.

Metallica were right, the memory remains. Not the memory itself, though, but the memory encoded specifically for that experience. The kind of memory which has the finger on the trigger.

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