Amy Grant and Incubation, a Memory Experiment

We are changing the “Make It Stick Mondays” to “Memory and Learning Mondays” to continue studying cognitive psychology’s contributions to education.


My wife and I recently had the opportunity to reconnect with some college friends at a park in North Charleston. They have three kids, we have four, and a park just seemed like the best place to have that many kids and attempt a meaningful conversation on a day expected to pass 95 degrees. All told, both objectives were successful: the kids played continuously for three hours outside and we were able to talk. Early in the conversation over fried chicken, potato salad, and watermelon, however, we turned to music and specifically Amy Grant’s album Heart in Motion. Perhaps you’re judging me on my musical tastes from adolescence, and many of them are indefensible. For what it’s worth, a Def Leppard single from that same period of my life would have been preferable. Nevertheless, I was stuck in the pine trees trying to retrieve a title with a few bars from the bridge, a guitar solo, and drum stops. That’s it.


Our friends immediately thought to google the album, find out the name of the song, and move on. I wanted to remember it on my own and kindly asked that they not tell me the name of the song, which meant that for the remainder of the afternoon and evening, that bridge looped about my hippocampus. My effort–or rather, I–became a bit of a joke: “Mike, did you figure it out yet?” or “Still thinking about Amy Grant?” I couldn’t let it go and struggled on. By the time I remembered, we had parted ways for the day. It’s called “Good for Me.” How appropriate.


Two things got me to play the fool. One was hearing one in our company ask, “Why wonder?” which translated to “Just google it.” Usually I’m fine with this route, but recent readings on the importance of the retrieval process in learning prompted me to believe that that this opportunity was as good as any. Secondly, the concept of “wonder” or “amazement” means a lot to me academically and spiritually. Hearing it connected to “Just google it” didn’t sit right. Wonder is the only ingredient necessary, Plato argues, to be a lover of wisdom. Perhaps you have tried to have a conversation with someone who displayed no sense of wonder about anything. It’s a lovely, uplifting, encouraging segment of your life you’ll never get back. Wonder is the power that allows Socrates to insist that “The unexamined life isn’t worth living.”


The specific process I initiated with “Good for Me” is called “incubation.” Benedict Carey explains in How We Learn that incubation occurs when we struggle to solve a problem unsuccessfully. We then walk away from it only to discover at a random time in a random space the solution we were looking for bubbles to the top. “Eureka!” to quote Archimedes. It’s like the problem-solvers in our brains continue working even though we think we’ve turned off the lights and left the building. Like with the following: I attempted to create four triangles out of six pencils of identical length. I constructed them one way and then another until I had to let it go. The solution came to me the next morning in rush-hour traffic on Highway 52 in Goose Creek out in front of the Dairy Queen.


The key, insists Carey, is that we struggle until we’re exhausted, walk away, and come back to the problem later if the answer doesn’t come before then.


I’m sure that many reading my musings would probably encourage me to be a little more selective in what I spend my time incubating. Is it really worth three to four hours of hearing a few bars of music in my head, let it go, remember the name of the song, and then have the glory that was early-90s pop music as an ear worm for the next three weeks? Solid question. And maybe that’s the real upshot of technology: we can be selective in what we spend our brain energy on. Mental processes like retrieval, incubation, and percolation (that one’s still to come) are hard work. There’s no way around it, and the sooner we help our students understand that learning is hard work the better. What Amy granted me–sorry, I couldn’t resist–was the opportunity to remember some emotionally rich experiences from 25 years ago involving a trip to Colorado, a letter, and a friend… And those things can’t be googled.

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