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What is useful to know about memory to enhance your learning

During last four weeks, I have been enrolled in the course on “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects’. The course was designed and delivered by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, and is available on Coursera. I have found the entire course very well designed, engaging, and I recommend to everybody who is interested to improve his or her learning ability. There were three crosscutting themes that I find appealing and useful for practically anybody who enjoys learning and cares about keeping his or her brain well-functioning for as long as possible.


What is useful to know about memory to enhance your learning For those who know little bit about how our brain is working it is a known fact, that we have two types of memory – (1) long term memory and (2) short term memory (also known as working memory). I will first summarize some basic information about these two types of memory and further list some tools to improve memory.

Working memory, located principally in pre-frontal cortex, is what occupies immediately and consciously our mind at any moment of the time. One could imagine it as a combination of computer processor and RAM memory. Working memory actually isn’t very good– it has limited ‘storage capacity’ and it stores information only for a limited amount of time. In order to keep the information in the working memory, we need to repeat thoughts about it (for example a phone number). Currently it is believed that working memory has a capacity of four ‘chunks’ of information at a time (1). Sleeping is from large part erasing the short term memory.

Long term memory is distributed in different parts of brain. According to Dr. Terrence Sejnowski (3), there are actually multiple memory systems for different types of learning.  We could imagine it as computers’ ROM memory. Capacity of our long term memory is theoretically unlimited. The main constraint on recall is actually accessibility rather than availability (2). The new information introduced to the long term memory through the process called ‘consolidation’ that is happening in hippocampus. That process can take long time and that information/piece of memory needs to be ‘revisited’ several times in order to increase the chance that it will be possibly to locate and use it later when needed. Moving effectively information from working to long term memory takes time and practice. The long term memories can remain dormant for a long time until the memory is retrieved and “reinstalled”. It is important to note that memories are not fixed. They are changing over the time. Why and how? Whenever we recall some old memory, it is “reinstalled” in the working memory, in the new context which may alter the old memory and be ‘saved’ through the process called ‘reconsolidation’. Like consolidation, also process of reconsolidation occurs during sleep. So, what are some tools that we can use to improve our memory? 1. During millions of years of evolutions our brain has developed tremendous visual-spatial memorability. Taping to its incredible capacity can help us to significantly improve our memory. One technique that uses our visual-spatial memorability is called MEMORY PALACE. Following are the steps of this technique in brief:

  • Call into your mind a familiar place (for example a layout of your office or house)
  • Use it as a visual notepad to deposit images of things you want to remember (the funnier and more evocative images, the better 
  • When you need to recall this memory, call to your mind again the place and you will see that the images of things will quickly pop-up.

2. There are many techniques and tools that can help with the process of consolidation:

  • Create meaningful groups that simplify the material (chunks).
  • Visualize – associate the chunks of information with images.
  • Write down (handwrite) and say loudly the information you are trying to remember
  • Flashcards or Index cards. When using them gradually extend the time between repetitions. There is a useful program and app for ‘virtual index cards’ called Anki.
  • Interleaving the learning – practice jumping back and forth between problems and situations that require different techniques or strategies to learn and remember.
  • Associate (link) numbers with events or with familiar numerical system.
  • Create memorable sentences to memorize concepts. Example learning cranial bones:
    • Old        [Occipital]
    • People   [Parietal]
    • From      [Frontal]
    • Texas     [Temporal]
    • Eat         [Ethnoid]
    • Spiders  [Sphenoid]

References: (1) Anonymous. (n.d.). Working memory. Retrieved January 25, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_memory (2) McLeod, S. (2010). Long Term Memory. Retrieved January 25, 2015, from http://www.simplypsychology.org/long-term-memory.html (3) Oakley, B., Sejnowski, T. (2015). Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. Lecture videos & presentations. Coursera, UC San Diego. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from https://class.coursera.org/learning-003

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One Response

  1. […] learning experiences (not surprisingly especially training of visual-spatial memory – see post on Memory) and enriched environment (exercise and interactions) stimulated formation of more and stronger […]

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