Associative Memory and Teaching in Sunday School

Associative Memory and Teaching in Sunday School

an article by Neil MacQueen,, about how our memories work, and how these insights should affect our teaching in Sunday School

“We must learn how to remember
because we must remember in order to learn.”

<>< Neil MacQueen

Let’s Trigger Some of Your Associative Memories…

  • Say the whole Alphabet. Did you have to sing-song-it a bit? That’s associative memory at work –your brain storing the alphabets with notes, and the notes helping trigger your memory about what comes next.
  • Where’s your favorite place to vacation?  Did a picture just pop into your brain? That picture is “associated” with your memory.
  • What do Chocolate Chip Cookies smell like?  If you actually just start to smell or taste them, that’s associative memory …heard words triggering a smell or taste.
  • What are the words to your favorite song?  Did you hear the tune in your head when you heard the words? Associative memory triggers again!
  • Where did you put your car keys?   Did your brain just tell your hand to check your pocket? Associative memory!

Associative Memory describes how ONE MEMORY TRIGGERS ANOTHER. And at the very least, Associative Memory is also the reason why teachers (or preacher) need to do more than stand there and talk when leading a Bible lesson (or preaching).

And as a teacher, we should be TREMENDOUSLY INTERESTED in the brain research and teaching techniques that show us the importance of storing lesson memories across our students’ wide array of memory and recall options, and what “triggers” are great for promoting recall and response.

Take the story of the Good Samaritan, for example, I want to vividly teach that story in an interactive way so that its GODLY VALUES are remembered, easily recalled, and ACTED UPON. The Prodigal Son?  I want to have all my kids practice RUNNING like the father towards the son to greet him, –throwing a new cloak around him, new shoes and a ring —so that they will ALSO remember the exuberant forgiving love of God.

So my job as a teacher is to create as many memorable points of active and emotional engagement that I can in order to feed this story into their brain -knowing that the brain will store the store in a myriad of places and with a multitude of “triggers.” Next time they hear the story in church and get to the father running, I want them to smile and remember how they ran across my classroom trying to out-do each other in their display of God’s lavish and exhuberant forgiveness.  And when their own prodigal moment comes when they need to know how much God loves their sinning soul, they will remember the God who is always ready to kill the fatted calf —triggered by that goofy stuffed horse we pretended was a fatted calf in our mini-drama.

The Memory Power of Stories

Brain researchers also define a type of memory called EPISODIC Memory — which is the brain’s ability to remember and use past experience to act in the present and plan for the future. You use Episodic Memory every time you tell a story or navigate to classroom. Without episodic memory, we’d be lost all the time. Episodic memory is very similar to associative, in that one memory triggers another.

  • Episodic + You see the water fountain and remember to turn left –without really thinking about it.

Story-telling, and story-remembering rely on our brain’s ability to remember strings of things (episodes). And if we tell it vividly (using various senses), then our Associative Memory abilities trigger meanings and feelings along with the episodes.

  • Associative = When you see the fountain, you remember the great fun you had when your brother splashed water from it onto you.

Bible stories and church experiences are memories that get formed and repeated like directions, and get associated with feelings (such as love) and the desire to respond.

  • You hear the story of the Good Samaritan in church, and stop to help someone broken down by the road.
  • You see the youth helping out at the church dinner, and remember a time when you once did the same as a teenager. And when they ask for mission trip help, you remember and help.
  • You hear the story of the lost sheep, and take the first step towards your lost brother.

The Role of Commitment in Remembering

Brain researchers have been able to quantify something we’ve known for a long time. Namely, that our LEVEL OF COMMITMENT to a subject affects the intensity with which the brain stores memories, and retrieves them. 

This is why kids don’t learn much when they don’t want to be there, and thus, why making every part of your lesson “kid-friendly” in order to harness the power of their commitment in helping them remember and recall the lesson.

One of the interesting aspects of creating a sense of commitment is that it often begins with the personal connection between a student and teacher –which turns into commitment. Call it charisma, but teachers who have it, who build relationships with their students, get more commitment. (Jesus understood this too.)  This is also why families that are committed to participating often have committed children.

The Role of Senses and Emotion in Remembering 

The number #1 place your brain loves to store memories and can retrieve them quickly is in visual memory.  This is why the sight of a boring teacher can create a sense of impending doom!   …Or the sight of donuts or computers in a classroom can make students happy when they walk in your classroom.  But keep reading… because these visual images are also associated with emotional memories!

Yes, your brain stores emotions, and loves to store emotional content connected to visuals. Just take a look at that photo of your baby in your wallet to confirm this.

This is why teaching with good media, in fun-looking classrooms that smell good, led by far-from-stoic teachers is teaching that gets remembered.

Some of the strongest and most deeply stored memories are emotional and smell memories.  Emotional and smell memories are processed in the very deep old parts of the brain (aka the “lizard brain” or limbic stem) which were designed for quick storage and retrieval in order to help us survive on the savannah. (Emotion and smell memories are a part of our “fight or flight” response.)

This is why certain smells can elicit almost an immediate and visceral reaction.  Take for example, how some people react to nursing home smells, or funeral home smells. Subconsciously, those smells are ‘tainting’ your experience wherever you are reliving those smells. What this means to teachers is that emotions and smells can also be very useful ways to help store lesson memories and “trigger” them as well. At the core of our faith is a great example of the nexus between visuals, sensory input (taste, smell), and emotions…

“Take, eat, this is my body, broken for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.” 

The problem of these powerful aids to memory is that they can also work against us. No matter how good a teacher is, a smelly room full of unfriendly people and mediocre activities can create indelible bad memories that get CLOSELY ASSOCIATED with the content, …which isn’t a good thing.

“Smelly Classroom = Bible Learning Stinks”
“Unfriendly teacher = Unfriendly God”
And then twenty years later, when the kids has become an adult, they walk into your church or classroom and its institutional smell physically dredges up unpleasant feelings, and they don’t want to be there.

You know this is true if you have ever visited a nursing home AFTER having lost a loved one who died in one.  School smells can dredge up the same subliminal feelings.

Another way to say this is “the learning atmosphere matters”  …and perhaps more than you realized.

Bad smells are a particular problem because of their deep wiring in our brains. They tell us where we don’t want to be.  I raise this issue because many Sunday School rooms smell bad,  …musty, mildewy, BO.  The brain can even be taught to associate a good smell with a bad experience. “The old Sunday School witch’s perfume”  -as expensive as it might be, can trigger a negative response from a former student years later when they smell it again at Macy’s or upon entering a church.

Those of us with DUST allergies or sensitivities to certain floral smells know first-hand how a place can make you “feel” and it’s almost subconscious. You “feel” closed in and choked when you encounter dust or mildew, and your brain tells you “I don’t like this place.”  It’s almost a sense of foreboding. And all that memory gets associated with what happens in that place. It’s like a subliminal message.

Humor is another dimension of remembering that doesn’t get enough credit.  Laughter is truly “brain medicine.”  It soothes our sense of self, bonds us to others, and helps us vividly remember the moment. Humor creates strong associations with content and to content. This is why we use a lot of humor in our software, and why I personally use a lot of skits, funny voices, and props when retelling a story in any lesson.

HEARING:  It is WAAAAAAAAY down the list of what the brain remembers, …unless it has emotional content like the cry of a child or laughter.

I can’t remember what my dad was yelling at me when I broke the big picture window with a basketball, but forty years later I sure remember the scene and how I felt!  I still feel guilty about it.

I don’t remember the words from a lot of sermons either, but I know I was fed!  …and there have been enough good ones to impress upon my memory that it is good to go up to the House of the Lord.

The problem with language, however, is that it’s much HARDER TO REMEMBER LANGUAGE, and much easier to remember a picture or a smell. And the spoken word has an added burden. The more the body & brain has to sit still and listen to, the more the body and brain says, “you need to get up and move.”

The solution to words? Fewer of them! (unless of course, you’re reading a great article)

And add visual, emotional content and movement to them.  Use a prop and don’t just sit there as you speak. Ever notice how good speakers and comedians move around on the stage? That’s not just because their nervous. All good speakers have learned that the eye pay attention to whatever moves. It’s part of our hardwiring. So if you’re talking, get in motion.

In the recent bestseller “Brain Rules the author and brain researcher noted that even adult ears and eyes glaze over at about the 10-minute mark in any lecture. His Solution?  Create breaks. Move. Change……the……….pace and visuals.
Change the tone. Introduce a story. MOVE, …and student brains will refresh. Read my summary of his book at

CAUTION:  Emotional memory can also work against you!

Most of the emotional content of our teaching is NOT in the story, but in the classroom and between the participants. It’s about how the kids feel about being together, about learning, about the teacher. The brain TENDS TO BLOCK OUT or disengage from what it doesn’t enjoy or feels threatened by. So I need to make sure every student walks in and then walks out of my class feeling good about the learning experience, feeling included, feeling loved. The next time they hear the word “parable” or “Samaritan” I don’t want them to start thinking,  “Wow, Mr. MacQueen was sooooo boring, and that room smelled like old socks!”

Well that’s a lot to say about some deep subjects. I hope this brief trip down “memory lane” causes you to remember and respond.  <>< Neil

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