The Pecking Order of the Senses for Learning & Memory

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In the realm of education — and more specifically, healthcare continuing education where I sit at present, we fret and fuss so much over some senses more than others when it comes to learning and retaining knowledge inside learning activities and education, and so much less about others. Why?

That, and everyone learns differently, through the different senses! (BTW, if you don’t know how you best learn, you can hop online and take free tests to figure it out, like this one. Without knowing, you could labor in vain.)

Back to the senses: here they are — in the order that educators (even accreditors) pay most vs. least attention toward, along with some of the research and science, that suggests we maybe shouldn’t have a pecking order at all, but instead pay attention to each of them equally when it comes to learning and memory:

  1. Sight — I sometimes love and appreciate that Jeff Bezos has banned PowerPoint from his meetings. To the point in education now where we obsess over slides and slide reviews prior to a learning activity’s peer review. Pray tell — what did we review before PowerPoint was even invented in continuing education? On the other hand, we take in or process all the “non-verbal” cues from a speaker. Not what you saw, not what you heard, but all the non verbals from the room and the speaker are what we end up noticing the most in an educational or speaker’s talk.
  2. Audio/Hearing — Hearing a speaker is probably just as important, if not more important than seeing the speaker, especially for audio/hearing based learners. Yet, we spend very little time assessing the quality of sound. Can the person in the back row of a meeting room clearly hear the speaker at the front, whilst the front row learner isn’t blown out of the room by the blast of the speakers?

After this, I think the remaining 4 are all focused upon least in a formal education setting. But, should they be?

3. Scent — There’s actual research on this here, but basically, if a product has a specific scent, recall of the product’s other positive attributes are more likely. For example, if you have a scented product vs. unscented tissue — let’s say, and both of them are also soft — the scented product will more likely be remembered also as ‘soft.’ Another study showed that honeybees given nectar infused with caffeine are more likely to remember the scent of that nectar more fondly. Humans aren’t bees — but, could this be extrapolated to humans? (Also, bees remember and link sight with smell.) Do we as educators need to have that coffee bar in the room first thing in the morning of a long day of learning? Last, I’ll leave you with a couple of my childhood favorite: scratch & sniff stickers, and Strawberry Shortcake. I remember Strawberry Shortcake more than Holly Hobby, for example, because she was scented. And, anyone who ever took general chemistry lab already knows what hydrogen sulfide smells like…you’ll never forget it.

4. Taste — Taste and scent are linked. There’s some old school brain ties between these two senses, and this article does a far better job than I could by explaining the links here. Here’s another cool study/research proposal, but the link between taste and memory are aptly summarized. I’m guessing that taste and scent are most integrated into learning for chefs, farmers and/or anyone in our food supply chain. I’m also coming at this from someone trained a pharmacist and lawyer — two areas that don’t have quite as much opportunity to learn through taste and smell.

5. TouchTouch is intimate, and its association with learning and memory is a lot more complex when it comes to humans than originally thought. Touch also increases long term memory recall. In watching the Blue Zone videos and studies, I also noticed that who live longer and healthier also seemed to touch people more — physically. Is that a mechanism by which they can better remember another person? Also — would rhythmic learner be in here, or over in auditory, or both? The lit would suggest more in auditory — but one of the first things I learned when I played any instrument was to tap my foot to keep time.

6. Intuition — Most mysterious of all the senses, and arguably not even a sense by some, intuition is that weird quality that is our gut. It’s understanding without a ton of time spent on reasoning. It’s that internal voice calmly or not so calmly shifting us to decide things in a certain way. One way to hone it? Hint: it’s tied to sense #2 — hearing and listening.

I don’t know if scientists fully know or appreciate how these all link to learning and memory. But the point is, as an educator, and struggling to figure out when a meeting or learning activity should require everyone participating live and in the same room at the same time, vs. online or on demand — I think educators should be paying more attention to all the senses when they do gather people real time for learning activities, rather than just one or two of the senses. Maybe as an educator, I need to pay more attention to all 6? I don’t know.

But it’s fun to ponder.

Pharmacist, author, lawyer, entrepreneur and The Edutainer Podcast Producer. Opining is my own.

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