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The Movie Theater Experience

The alternative to memorizing or superficial verbal processing is absorption. This is what it means to dive in to the text. Get immersed in it.

Generate images. If you are a college student, relate it to your other classes. Imagine performing the actions that are described in the text, or imagine you carrying out the experiments.

What do expert memorizers, sports fans, and musicians demonstrate?

Expert memorizers take an interest in the material they want to memorize. [That link leads to a page in Chapter 6, Memory, about expert memorizers. In general, links within text lead to other parts of the text where a concept is explained in greater detail. The link opens in a new page so you will not lose your place on the previous page.]

Expert memorizers inspect the internal details of the thing they want to memorize. They do not necessarily exert effort, per se. Rather, they open their minds to the components and relationships within the system they are analyzing.

This type of mental activity is familiar to any sports fan who analyzes an important athletic contest, or any musician who learns the details of a favorite song. Superior memory occurs when the inner details of a situation are perceived with fascination.

That absorbed state of mind might be called the movie theater experience, because it occurs naturally when we watch a good movie. People become absorbed in the details of what is in front of them. If the movie is good, the result is a deep sense of involvement.

Natural Memory through Absorption

The movie theater experience is a powerful aid to memory. The average moviegoer could repeat the plot and many details of a good movie after seeing it only once. If he or she likes a movie enough to see it a second time, the person becomes a virtual encyclopedia of knowledge about it.

A tremendous amount of information is memorized in a short time. Yet such a person does not try to memorize. He or she does not watch the movie thinking, "I must remember this" or "How do I recall what happened in the last scene?!" The memory comes naturally due to the state of absorption.

How does the movie theater experience differ from typical memorization approaches?

A similar state can occur during pleasure reading. Many people report a sense of waking up from a dream when they reach the end of a good book. That shows deep involvement of imagination. Memory for the content of the book is automatic and effortless, after such involvement.

Unfortunately, not every book is enjoyable, just as not every movie is enjoyable. If a movie repulsed you, you would not want to "drink it in" or remember every detail. The same is true of reading. Sometimes a book is unpleasant.

Also, reading is not as easy as watching a movie. Not every student in college is capable of reading at a college level as defined by standardized tests of reading ability.

We can admit all these things, yet still recognize the core insight. An experience of being interested and absorbed is far superior to meaningless memorization, both as a form of learning and as a pleasurable experience, if only you can achieve it.

Some students do little pleasure reading. When I asked a large introductory psychology class how many of them were familiar with the sensation of waking up from a dream, after reading a good book, about two-thirds of the hands went up. The implication was that about a third of students had no personal experience with a trancelike state of absorption during reading.

How many students in a large introductory psychology class were familiar with enjoyable absorption in reading?

This called for some missionary work. I had to convince those students that such a thing was possible. Moreover, it could be accomplished with their textbook.

They could actually lose track of time because they were so deeply involved in reading. If it can happen in any college class, it should happen with introductory psychology class, because psychology covers many interesting topics. If you have never gotten "absorbed" while reading, give it a try. It is possible, and it can happen.

This state of absorption typically does not happen if there are excessive interruptions. The details of a movie are not easily absorbed if the movie is on a TV playing in the background while you are constantly interrupted. For similar reasons, it is probably not a good idea to study with the TV going on or while attention-grabbing music is playing.

What can break the spell in a movie, and what are the implications for studying?

Some students report that they can study effectively to music that has no vocal track, or to music that is very familiar to them, because it does not grab their attention. For most people, the ideal environment for absorption is an environment with no distractions.

That is why we do not like it when people throw popcorn or talk to their neighbors during a movie. It breaks the spell. Distractions during deep reading can have the same effect: they break the spell and ruin enjoyment.

The biggest problem, for some students, is getting interested in what they are studying. Here there are no easy answers. People genuinely differ in what they find interesting.

Among students in my classes, the same chapters might be singled out as love or hate objects by different students. Some hated Chapter 5 (Conditioning); others said it was their favorite. The same thing happened with Chapter 7 (Cognition).

For some students who loved animals, Chapter 8 (Animal Behavior and Cognition) was the high point of the course. Others said they have no interest in studying animals. I suppose we should celebrate this normal variation in human beings, although of course I wished everybody could enjoy everything.

Almost everybody liked Chapter 16 (Sex, Friendship and Love), and the test scores showed it. People who struggled all term suddenly learned effortlessly. Obviously an ability to take interest in a subject is crucial to effortless learning and memory.

You might be able to take an active role in making a subject matter more interesting for yourself. When I was a student studying the brain, I reminded myself of the fact that I was using a brain to study how brains worked.

That was quite remark­able, I thought. That might not hit your buttons. Use whatever works for you.

One way a textbook author can help students is by using stories and examples. Examples make an abstract idea into something concrete that a person can grasp.

Stories are naturally interesting and easy to understand for humans. I use all the examples and true stories I can. Many of the stories are essays by previous introductory psychology students. These are marked Author's Files and are used by permission.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

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