What makes something memorable? Typically, the memories we can easily recall involve a strong emotional reaction. An engagement or wedding. A heartbreak or family loss. An adrenaline-filled activity that heightens our sense of fear. These strong emotional reactions solidify these memories in our minds, staying with us while countless others come and go.
According to Pascal Boyer, a cognitive psychologist, we more easily remember ideas and concepts that fulfill a certain set of criteria.
First, the first requirement is that the concept fits into a general category. “Animals” is one such category. Even if we can’t distinctly express how animals differ from say, insects, we still have a general sense that they’re different. This is why most abstract ideas can be fit into one of these categories. Take aliens, for example. In most depictions of aliens, they have distinctly human qualities. They walk upright on two limbs and they have the skeletal structure of a human or other animal-like creature. If a concept or idea completely violates all of the general categories we use to place these concepts, it’ll be too hard to comprehend, and thus, won’t be remembered. (According to Boyer.)
This is true for experiences, too. If I asked you to imagine what it would be like to attend a wedding, a funeral, or a family reunion, most people would likely imagine a similar series of events–even if they had never actually experienced these events in real life. Just like ideas and objects, we categorize events and experiences into general categories as well.
The second piece of criteria is that the concept or experience needs to violate its category in a distinct way. Boyer used this to help explain the spread of religious ideation throughout the centuries. Most religious deities fulfill our typical human category, complete with emotions and values, but also violate the category by having the ability to walk on water.
For another example, think about a wedding. Imagine witnessing a groom being left at the altar by an unsure bride. That would subsequently be a wedding story you could more easily recall in the future because it violates the experience we expect to have during a typical wedding. The categorization of an idea or experience is what we use to help understand and fully comprehend what we’re seeing, but it’s the violation of a key tenet of the category that helps it become memorable.
How can you use these concepts to create more memorable experiences? To illustrate, let me share with you a story about sneaking into Spain’s largest attraction: La Sagrada Familia.
Our tour inside this beautiful place almost didn’t happen.
The one thing my girlfriend wanted to do during our first international trip to Spain almost didn’t happen. (Talk about feeling like a terrible boyfriend…)
We traveled to Spain for 13 days. During that trip we did a lot of things: I ran with the bulls in Pamplona, we sipped cava while watching the sunset over the beach in Ibiza, and we dined at one of the best restaurants we’ve ever been to. (A restaurant that was later ranked as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world).
On our second-to-last day, we got up early and made our way to La Sagrada Familia to purchase our tickets to see the inside of one of Spain’s biggest attractions…
They were sold out.
These photos almost didn’t happen.
They had no available tickets for that day and the next, the only two opportunities we had left to see the inside of this marvelous place.
We should have bought tickets ahead of time, but we didn’t. We screwed up. My girlfriend was visibly sad and I don’t blame her. I dragged her an extra four hours north to let me run with the bulls, and we weren’t going to do the one thing she wanted out of the whole trip.
As we began walking back to our Airbnb, we were brainstorming ideas. We couldn’t give up yet.
We kept walking and I remember passing the various tour companies that had offices set all along the adjacent streets to the cathedral. That’s when it hit me.
We ducked into a nearby cafe to jump on the wifi and began searching for third-party tours that still had open spots. We figured that these tour companies must purchase tickets ahead of time for their guests. That could be our way in.
As we began scouring the internet for open tours, they were all sold out. Still no luck.
We were able to eventually find one tour for 5:40pm the next day. It would be our only opportunity. There’s was just one small problem: the tour was is German.
We were both a little apprehensive, but we booked it anyway.
Neither of us speaks German. We figured since we weren’t originally planning a tour that we just needed to get inside. Even if we didn’t understand any of the tour, we’d still be able to see the inside of the cathedral.
So we rearranged our schedule a bit and showed up the next evening a little before 5:40pm.
We enter the office to check-in and I ask the receptionist, “My girlfriend and I have signed up for the German tour that starts soon. Neither of us speaks German, which is totally fine. I knew that when we booked the tickets. If there’s nothing you can do that’s no problem, but are there any spots in English tours available, or anything you can do?”
She checked us in, asked us to take a seat, and said she’d get back to me. Fifteen minutes go by and she calls me back over:
Tour Agent: “It looks like enough people in your group speak English that we’re just going to give the tour in English.”
And so, we made it into the cathedral, took a tour in English, and even got to go up in the tower and walk the staircase back down. (400+ steps.) This event became one of the most memorable moments of the trip, and we left with a great story to tell about how we “snuck” into La Sagrada Familia by joining a German tour.
If you want to make the most out of your experiences, sometimes you should be willing to think outside the box and break some rules. I don’t mean breaking any laws. (Don’t do that.) I mean breaking conventional societal rules, violating a key tenet of the category you use to file the memory away in your brain.
This particular unforgettable memory involved breaking a conventional rule like signing up for a tour in a language we didn’t understand.
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