Those of you who follow my blog posts know that I often discuss tips and tricks for improving your memory, since this is such a vital component of learning that we champion here at Brainscape. When I come across relevant blog posts that express things that I could not say better myself, I re-post them in order to share them with you and give the authors the credit they deserve. The following post, which I found in one of the Psychology Today Blogs called Look At It This Way, is a comprehensive explanation of memory, how we can improve it, and how we can make it work for us in the face of its “downsides”. As always, if you have any reactions to this post that you’d like to share, please post your comments below!
How does the brain work to remember…and forget?
By: Stephen Mason, Ph.D.
July 7, 2009
Is it normal to forget why I'm looking in the refrigerator? If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me that, I'd have at least four dollars. As it happens, there's a lot I can tell you about memory. And a lot I can't. Mostly this is because the brain is such a complex organ that, despite generations of scientific study, many of its functions remain a mystery. Two people, perhaps the only two in the world, have recently made the news because they never forget anything. Ask what they did on June 23, 1996 and they'll tell you. A much greater number will tell you that February 7, 1940 was a Wednesday. And even more will be able to describe, with 100% certainty, the man who robbed the bank…and be 100% wrong.
Just to give you an idea of how hard it is to fathom the workings of the mind, try comparing it to a computer. There is a fellow who has gone way beyond the usual 3.14, which serves well enough for the rest of us, who has actually memorized pi to 83,431 decimal places. An amazing feat and yet it would require only 100 bytes to do the same on a computer. On the other hand, the average person can easily recognize a hundred faces from as many angles…a task that would require hundreds of gigabytes. Weighing in at less than three pounds (less than 2% of your total mass) that clump of soft tissue under your hat is more complicated than we know…perhaps than we can know.
The memory function can be divided into short and long term. Forgetting why you're looking into the refrigerator falls into the first category. This is often a symptom of aging but why that should be so isn't as simply as it might seem. While it's true that neural deterioration accounts for some of it, it's also true that seniors can become so firmly entrenched in their daily routine that they pay less and less atten
tion. Getting into the habit of reviewing your day is often therapeutic in this regard. Simply talking with a spouse about what happened over the past 24-hours can significantly sharpen your recall of those events at a later date.
Some people swear by supplements such as Ginkgo Biloba. It's been used for centuries and is said to help with everything from PMS to altitude sickness and, of course, memory enhancement. Legitimate studies have, indeed, found some benefit in cases of dementia due to multi-infarct damage and Alzheimer's. However, it's difficult to know the quality of the product being sold over-the-counter and to decide on the appropriate dose. More studies aren't being done because funding is always scarce when it comes to non-proprietary drugs. If no one is going to make big bucks selling it, no one is going to spend big bucks researching it.
Students know that it's best to study for a test at about the same time of day that they will be tested. This is because your body goes through a series of rhythms and it's easiest to recall something at approximately the same time you first experienced it. Any resolution made the morning after a night of drinking is apt to be forgotten a few nights and a few drinks later. This is also why you want to record something you need to remember via as many senses as possible. To learn a new word, for example, say it, listen to it, write it, and look at it. Then make up a story. Traveling in Korea, I came across the term for that pale green pottery so typical of the region. It's called CELADON. To help me remember the word, I created a mnemonic device. That is, I made up a story of someone putting an Oxford Don up for auction on eBay…Sell-A-Don. Get it? And while I agree that it's a silly association, I've never forgotten it. You can try it right now to better appreciate its effectiveness by making up a story to help you remember the word MNEMONIC.
Finally, having a good memory might not always be in your best interest. Two examples can serve to make my point. One involves depression. When your spirits are down, a good memory can bring a flood of negative experiences from your past to keep you in exactly that same frame of mind. Your sugar level is down so you recall a time when you felt humiliation in front of a group. Good memory but to a bad effect. Another has to do with beliefs that get in the way of your happiness. It's called Confirmation Bias and means that you will often tend to bring up those notions that can most reinforce your least worthy ideas. A terrorist bent on a suicide mission is just naturally going to remember all the bad and none of the good things he's ever heard or thought about his victims.
So just as you can learn to improve your memory by a number of different techniques, you can also learn to make your memory work for you. Mostly, that's just a matter of concentrating on happy thoughts and leaving the rest behind. Believe me, it's better than an apple a day.