Why we can easily remember jingles but not jokes

From Natalie Angier’s “In One Ear and Out the Other” (The New York Times: 16 March 2009):

In understanding human memory and its tics, Scott A. Small, a neurologist and memory researcher at Columbia, suggests the familiar analogy with computer memory.

We have our version of a buffer, he said, a short-term working memory of limited scope and fast turnover rate. We have our equivalent of a save button: the hippocampus, deep in the forebrain is essential for translating short-term memories into a more permanent form.

Our frontal lobes perform the find function, retrieving saved files to embellish as needed. And though scientists used to believe that short- and long-term memories were stored in different parts of the brain, they have discovered that what really distinguishes the lasting from the transient is how strongly the memory is engraved in the brain, and the thickness and complexity of the connections linking large populations of brain cells. The deeper the memory, the more readily and robustly an ensemble of like-minded neurons will fire.

This process, of memory formation by neuronal entrainment, helps explain why some of life’s offerings weasel in easily and then refuse to be spiked. Music, for example. “The brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns, and music plays into that inclination,” said Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University. “From an acoustical perspective, music is an overstructured language, which the brain invented and which the brain loves to hear.”

A simple melody with a simple rhythm and repetition can be a tremendous mnemonic device. “It would be a virtually impossible task for young children to memorize a sequence of 26 separate letters if you just gave it to them as a string of information,” Dr. Thaut said. But when the alphabet is set to the tune of the ABC song with its four melodic phrases, preschoolers can learn it with ease.

And what are the most insidious jingles or sitcom themes but cunning variations on twinkle twinkle ABC?

Really great jokes, on the other hand, punch the lights out of do re mi. They work not by conforming to pattern recognition routines but by subverting them. “Jokes work because they deal with the unexpected, starting in one direction and then veering off into another,” said Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.” “What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember.”

This may also explain why the jokes we tend to remember are often the most clichéd ones. A mother-in-law joke? Yes…

1,000,000 miles in 30 days

From MSNBC’s “Very, very frequent flyer hits 1 million goal“:

On his blog “The Great Canadian Mileage Run 2005,” [Marc] Tacchi reported on Wednesday that he had racked up 1,003,625 mileage points and spent 56 of the last 61 days in an airplane. …

The 30-year-old embarked on his venture using Air Canada’s North America Unlimited Pass — a C$7,000 ticket that allowed passengers limitless travel within the continent between October 1 and November 30. …

A typical day would start with a 10 a.m. flight to Victoria, British Columbia, about 70 km (45 miles) from Vancouver. He would fly back and fourth between the two cities about six times and then catch an overnight flight 4,300 km (2,700 miles) to Toronto.

In Toronto, he would immediately board a return flight. …

By reaching the 1 million mile goal, Tacchi gets the equivalent of about 10 round-trip business class flights from Canada to Australia, which he has estimated would normally cost about C$70,000.

He plans to redeem his travel points to take his family to Miami at Christmas, then maybe go to Hong Kong or Thailand.

When he wasn’t flying to collect travel points, Tacchi works as a contract pilot. Once a week, he flies a Boeing 747 cargo plane to Europe or Asia.

Ben Jones sands his floors

From Ben Jones’ Benblog, February 2003:

Prepare. Sand down the roughest parts. Vacuum. Gaze. Gaze again. Sand a level finer, starting to expose more of the grain, slowly in parts, lightly. Stopping frequently, when the machine is strained. Changing the pad. Vacuum. Clean. Assess. Gaze. Gaze again.

This time is the first touch.

There are some rough spots. Some you know you can’t get out. But it’s beautiful still, all the same. More so even, with character I didn’t know was there before.

And then another round. This time is not so rough, not so much dust. On some spots, the sander seems to polish more than cut. Wait for what dust there is to settle again. The pads don’t need to be changed so much now. I know where the sander will catch.

I’ve made some gouges here and there, impatient with rough spots, stains. I’m more careful, more accepting now of the others I find. They will come out with a finer hand, or they will stay, part of the wood’s character, that I’m growing to love even more.

Vacuum. Clean. Assess. Gaze. Gaze again.

This time I stroke, grasping the wood as fully as I can. Knowing the rough spots especially.

And then once again, now the 100 grit. Smooth now, with enough teeth to hold a polishing coat. To last a while. Shining through. With a touch up here and there.