Today, I’ll be sharing some fascinating tips that I have read about memory from John Medina’s best-selling book, Brain Rules. I first picked up this book because of my deep interest in neuroscience, but as I was reading it, I learned a lot about how the brain stores and recalls information – and found it highly relevant to my academic pursuits!
First, let’s talk about the two types of memory: 1) declarative, and 2) nondeclarative.
Nondeclarative vs. Declarative Memory
There are two types of memory: nondeclarative memory and declarative memory.
Nondeclarative memory cannot be experienced in our conscious awareness (e.g. riding a bike).
On the other hand, declarative memory is experienced in our conscious awareness and involves information that can be declared (e.g. The sky is blue). This type of memory involves four steps: 1) encoding, 2) storing, 3) retrieving, and 4) forgetting.
Now, let’s talk more about how declarative memory works!
Encoding: The First Step
The first step of the process by which declarative memory functions is encoding. Encoding is the manner in which we pay attention to, understand, and organize information so that we can store it in our minds.
Think of this first step as a blender with the lid off – it chops up all of the information you are learning into little chunks that are splattered all over the inside of your mind. By breaking up the information into smaller pieces, your brain is making it more manageable – so that the information can be transmitted to specific areas for processing. Processing centers are scattered all throughout the brain.
Storing: The Second Step
After encoding, our brain has the ability to temporarily hold the information in our memory – this ability is called working memory (also called “short-term” memory).
Working memory has a limited capacity. It only acts as a bridge between encoding and storage – the first and next steps of memory. Any information held in your working memory must be converted into a more permanent form – or else it will disappear! This process of converting short-term memories into long-term ones for storage is called consolidation.
There are two types of consolidation, and they differ from one another based on how long they take: 1) fast consolidation, and 2) slow consolidation.
As the name implies, fast consolidation takes place… well, fast. Usually within minutes or hours. (That is, as long as the information is reviewed within 90 minutes after learning it.) Slow consolidation, on the other hand, takes place over a much longer period of time. Once converted from short-term to long-term, a long-term memory is only truly stable after years have passed from the formation of the initial memory!
Retrieving: The Third Step
Interestingly enough, research has shown that even long-term memories are not as stable as they appear to be. Every time you remember something, your brain restarts the consolidation process all over again – it puts this “long-term” memory into your working memory, making it a “short-term” memory. This process is called – ready? – reconsolidation. In other words, a memory can only be “permanently” stored in your brain as long as you don’t try to remember it.
But wait! If you want to remember something, won’t you have to recall it later, after you have put it in your long-term memory? Doesn’t this mean that that piece of information will disappear unless you do something to remember it?
Well, yes – which is why repetition is so important! (More on that later.)
Forgetting: The Fourth Step?
The brain does not have infinite space for memories, contrary to popular belief. Forgetting is very important in “cleaning out” unwanted information to make room for more important things. Just as you clean out your closet to prioritize the clothes that you wear, your brain cleans out memories to prioritize what you need to remember.
Forgetting is also important in the brain’s ability to pattern-match. In other words, if you couldn’t forget things, you can’t associate new pieces of information with one another – to see the “big picture,” as it were. All you would be able to do is memorize – and that isn’t the way to remembering information for the long-term at all.
So How Can You Improve Your Memory?
Although there is still much to learn about how the brain remembers information, here are some tips based on the science we just learned!
Tip #1: Pay attention! The more attention that your brain gives to something, the more elaborately the information will be encoded (learned) and retained. The more elaborate the encoding process is, the stronger the memory will be!
What can boost your attention and make encoding more elaborate?
- Being interested in the information – this can be difficult, but being positive about what you are trying to learn goes a long way!
- Not “multitasking” – your brain cannot fully pay attention to more than one thing at the same time!
- A person who is interrupted while giving their full attention to a task takes 50% longer to finish the task and makes up to 50% more errors than a person who is not interrupted.
- Making the information less boring – mix things up when you are trying to learn something!
- Novel stimuli that are unusual, unpredictable, or distinctive are better remembered than things that are boring.
- Giving the information more “door handles” that your brain can grab to promote recall
- Attaching context to the information – like a picture, a song, or an acronym
- Attaching emotion to the information – released neurotransmitters act like chemical “sticky notes” attached to the information to promote its processing
- Attaching meaning to the information (see Tip #3)
- Attaching examples to the information – associating information already present in the brain with what you are learning also promotes processing of the new information
Tip #2: Take consistent breaks. Your brain needs these breaks in order to digest information and connect the dots between related pieces of information.
- Being presented with too much information all at once without giving your brain enough time to digest the information is detrimental to the learning process.
Tip #3: Understand what the information means. Don’t just memorize things and expect your brain to magically reveal the meaning!
- Make an effort to fully understand the meaning of the information.
- If the information is presented in a logical, hierarchical way, then your understanding of it will be increased!
- Make an effort to first understand the “big picture” or gist of the information.
- If we don’t know the gist (“big picture” or general meaning) of the information, then we are less likely to pay attention to the details.
Tip #4: Learn the information in the same “environment” in which you want to recall it. This adds more meaning to the information you are trying to remember! For example, instead of studying for an oral exam from written notes, practice what you want to say during the exam out loud. (In other words, mimic the conditions of the exam!)
Tip #5: Repetition over deliberately spaced out a long period of time is key if you want to create reliable long-term memories. The brain can only hold seven pieces of new information in working memory for about 30 seconds – so if you want to remember something for longer than that, you need to re-expose yourself to the information many times. This is called spaced out repetition – and it is the opposite of “cramming” (which a lot of students do, unfortunately). For most subjects taught in a classroom, memory degradation begins within the first few hours after the class has ended – this is why it is so important to review class notes the same day as the class!
Tip #6: Learning is more effective when you use all of your senses. When learning new information, combining more than one sense makes recall of that information more accurate, more detailed, and more long-term. As it turns out, the reason why reading alone is not enough to remember information is because your brain sees letters as tiny pictures and takes a long time to process them.
So, instead of just reading an article, try reading it out loud – you use both your eyes and your ears. Similarly, instead of taking notes by writing only words, try drawing pictures with captions to explain the same information (sketchnoting, anyone?). This extra processing of the information helps you remember it better – simply because it is more elaborate (see Tip #1).
I hope you found this post interesting!
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more cool things! :)