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Published on March 16, 2020

7 Proven Ways to Strengthen Your Long Term Memory

7 Proven Ways to Strengthen Your Long Term Memory

We’ve all had that experience where someone approaches us and says something like, “Hey, it’s so good to see you again!” And we suddenly turn into Dori from “Finding Nemo.” In an instant, our memory fails us. The moment we need our long term memory most, it’s nowhere to be found.

Long term memory, and memory more generally, can seem mysterious. You learn something, it goes somewhere in your brain, and then you hopefully remember it when you need it. However, we all know that memory isn’t as precise as simply storing and retrieving. After all, we’re not robots. Sometimes it can feel more like searching for a pair of tweezers in a hoarder’s basement.

Therefore, understanding a little about how long term memory works can give us some valuable tricks for how to strengthen our long term memory and improve the retrieval process.

Where Does Long Term Memory Happen?

Memory is broken down into three parts: encoding, storing, and retrieving. First, we perceive something, and it gets encoded in the brain as a memory. Next, the memory is stored in various brain regions. Finally, you retrieve or recall the memory when necessary.

Consolidation is the process of transferring a short term memory into a long term memory, and scientists have made some new discoveries about how this consolidation process occurs.

Until fairly recently, scientists thought that short term memories occurred in the hippocampus and were then consolidated to other brain regions, but new studies have given us another model for how long term memory works.

The old way of thinking about memory, called the standard model, says that memories get encoded in the hippocampus as short term memories and are later consolidated or transferred to the neocortex.

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But there’s a new model in town. Scientists have recently come up with the multiple trace model.[1] Instead of starting in the hippocampus, this model shows that memories start in the hippocampus and the neocortex simultaneously.[2]

Instead of transferring memories from one region to the other, the memory trace in the neocortex strengthens over the course of two weeks to become a long term memory, while the memory in the hippocampus weakens over that same time period.

This is an important distinction because, instead of trying to strengthen the transfer from short to long term memory (hippocampus to neocortex), we may actually be strengthening what started as a trace of a memory that’s already hanging out in the neocortex.

How to Improve Your Long Term Memory

Here are 7 scientifically proven ways to strengthen those trace memories in the neocortex and boost your long term memory:

1. Get Some Exercise

Studies[3] have shown that walking and running both help improve long term memory. The trick is to get that exercise during the encoding stage of memory. That means reading while on the treadmill or going over your speech while pumping iron. This helps boost your long term memory.

The good news is that even light exercise during encoding boosts long term memory retrieval later.

2. Get Some Sleep

Recently, scientists[4] have discovered that sleeping helps our brains clear out some memories, which helps strengthen others. It’s a necessary process that requires us to get a good night’s rest and plenty of REM sleep.

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In order to retrieve long term memories that we need later, we need that nightly downtime to discard less important memories.[5]

3. Drink Some Coffee

Good news for all you coffee addicts—caffeine can also help boost your long term memory. In one study, participants were given caffeine after their memory testing.[6] The results showed that caffeine helped with long term memory consolidation.

Think of it as strengthening those trace memories in the neocortex (if we’re using the multiple trace model). A caveat: scientists still haven’t been able to prove that caffeine helps with long term memory retrieval.

4. Pay Attention

Memory relies on the first step in the process; we have to encode information before it can be stored. That’s why it’s so important to pay close attention the first time we experience new information.

In one adorable study with toddlers, scientists tried to determine whether immediate imitation helped the toddlers strengthen their long term memory on later tests.[7]

What they found is that imitation wasn’t actually necessary for improving later memory retrieval. The key to successful long term memory retrieval was paying attention in the first place. It wasn’t essential that the toddlers parrot back the information, just that they paid attention to it.

So whether you’re repeating, taking notes, or just staring intently, the bottom line is that you need to pay attention to boost your future long term memory storage and retrieval.

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5. Quiz Yourself

Another way to strengthen your long term memory is to quiz yourself. Paying attention is important, but to really boost your eventual memory retrieval, periodically testing yourself to see what you remember is important.

The testing effect is the phenomenon that testing yourself improves retention.[8]. Think about just reading over your notes as compared to using flashcards to quiz yourself. When you skim over your notes, you aren’t paying attention to what you do and don’t know. You’re also not practicing your long term memory retrieval.

However, when you make flashcards, create a practice test, or cover the answers and quiz yourself, you are forcing yourself to confront what you do and don’t know and which memories are weaker than others. This forces you to practice your retrieval and strengthen your long term memory.

6. Practice Repeated Retrieval

Quizzing yourself is one thing, but if you want to take your memory-boosting to the next level, you need to try repeated retrieval. Instead of just quizzing yourself once, repeated retrieval is where you quiz yourself multiple times over a period of time.[9]. Since it takes two weeks to strengthen those trace memories in the neocortex, that’s the benchmark for repeated retrieval.

Repeated retrieval is also known as spaced retrieval. Companies using this technique have been around since the 1970s, but now, thanks to advances in technology, you can easily access spaced repetition tools online.

The concept is simple. You are asked a question. If you know the answer, it goes in one pile (virtual or real), and if you don’t it goes in another. More time will go by before you are asked the questions you got right than the ones you got wrong. The interval between questioning increases each time you get an answer correct until it is safe and sound in your long term memory.

7. Space out Your Recall

Instead of cramming, spacing out your recall sessions has been shown to improve long term memory. When you cram, you can just rely on the short term memory in your hippocampus, whereas spacing out your study sessions forces you to strengthen those trace memories waiting in your neocortex.

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Final Thoughts

Memory is imprecise, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about it, but recent studies have shed some light on the techniques that we can use to better boost our long term memory.

Knowing that memories are simultaneously encoded in multiple brain regions can help us think more about strengthening those trace memories instead of transferring them from one region to another.

Exercise, caffeine, and paying attention to the world around us can help with our encoding. Then, quizzing ourselves over time can help us store and retrieve those long term memories.

It’s important to think of memory as a gradual process that takes place over weeks, not moments. Also, it can’t be overstated how important sleep is to the memory process. Without a good night’s rest and regular REM cycles, the brain doesn’t have time to sift through which memories to keep and which to throw away.

Without these 7 strategies, our brains will be like that hoarder’s basement, so clean it out and create a retrieval system that you use regularly. After using these 7 techniques to strengthen your long term memory, your brain will be more like a library archive than a messy, musty basement.

The final piece of good news: you’re never too old to strengthen your long term memory, so get started today.

More Tips on Strengthening Memory

Featured photo credit: Tamarcus Brown via unsplash.com

Reference

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Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition.

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Published on June 30, 2020

What Is Unconscious Bias (And How to Reduce It for Good)

What Is Unconscious Bias (And How to Reduce It for Good)

Many conversations are being held nowadays regarding unconscious bias, but what does it really mean and how can it affect your life and the people around you? With many types of biases, it can get quite confusing. In this article, we’ll touch on cognitive bias, and then zero in on unconscious bias. Both types of biases have an immediate impact on your life because they relate to how you and others think about yourself and other people.

If you want to protect your relationships and make good decisions about other people, you need to know what these biases mean[1]. Once we have clarity about that, we can explore in more depth unconscious bias and how to address it[2].

Cognitive Bias

Let’s start with cognitive bias[3], a predictable pattern of mental errors that result in us misperceiving reality and, as a result, deviating away from the most likely way of reaching our goals[4].

These mental blind spots impact all areas of our life, from health to relationships and even shopping, as a study recently revealed[5]. In other words, from the perspective of what is best for us as individuals, falling for a cognitive bias always harms us by lowering our probability of getting what we want.

Cognitive biases have to do with judgment, not mood. Ironically, cognitive biases — such as the optimism bias and overconfidence effect — more often lead to positive moods. Of course, the consequence of falling into cognitive biases, once discovered, usually leaves us in a bad mood due to the disastrous results of these dangerous judgment errors.

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Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is different from cognitive bias. Also known as implicit bias, it refers to unconscious forms of discrimination and stereotyping based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, age, and so on[6]. Despite cognitive biases sometimes leading to discriminatory thinking and feeling patterns, these are two separate and distinct concepts.

Cognitive biases are common across humankind and relate to the particular wiring of our brains, while unconscious bias relates to perceptions between different groups and are specific for the society in which we live. For example, I bet you don’t care or even think about whether someone is a noble or a commoner, yet that distinction was fundamentally important a few centuries ago across Europe. To take another example, most people in the US don’t have strong feelings about Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims, yet this distinction is incredibly meaningful in many parts of the world.

Unconscious Bias and Discriminatory Behavior

Organizations often bring me in as a speaker on diversity and inclusion to address potential unconscious discriminatory behavior. When I share in speeches that black Americans suffer from police harassment and violence at a much higher rate than white people, some participants (usually white) occasionally try to defend the police by claiming that black people are more violent and likely to break the law than whites. They thus attribute police harassment to the internal characteristics of black people (implying that it is deserved), and not to the external context of police behavior.

In reality – as I point out in my response to these folks – research shows that black people are harassed and harmed by police at a much higher rate for the same kind of activity. A white person walking by a cop, for example, is statistically much less likely to be stopped and frisked than a black one[7].

At the other end of things, a white person resisting arrest is much less likely to be violently beaten than a black one. In other words, statistics show that the higher rate of harassment and violence against black Americans by police is due to the prejudice of the police officers, at least to a large extent[8].

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However, I am careful to clarify that this discrimination is not necessarily intentional. Sometimes, it indeed is deliberate, with white police officers consciously believing that black Americans deserve much more scrutiny than whites. At other times, the discriminatory behavior results from unconscious, implicit thought processes that the police officer would not consciously endorse[9].

After becoming aware that unconscious bias does exist, the next step would be learning how to recognize it in order to reduce it. I’ve outlined three crucial points to keep in mind below while further exploring the unconscious prejudice discussed above.

How to Reduce Unconscious Bias

Remember these three important points if you want to work on reducing your unconscious bias.

1. Unconscious Bias is a Systemic Issue

When we understand that unconscious bias is ultimately a systemic issue, we understand that internal cultures need to be checked and addressed first.

Interestingly, research shows that many black police officers have an unconscious prejudice against other black people, perceiving them in a more negative light than white people when evaluating potential suspects. This unconscious bias carried by many — not all — black police officers helps show that such prejudices come – at least to a significant extent – from internal cultures within police departments, rather than pre-existing racist attitudes present before someone joins a police department.

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Such cultures are perpetuated by internal norms, policies, and training procedures, and any police department wishing to address unconscious bias needs to address internal culture first and foremost, rather than attributing racism to individual officers.

In other words, instead of saying it’s a few bad apples in a barrel of overall good ones, the key is recognizing that unconscious bias is a systemic issue, and the structure and joints of the barrel needs to be fixed[10].

2. There Is No Shame in Unconscious Bias

Another crucial thing that needs to be highlighted is that there is no shame or blame in unconscious bias as it’s not stemming from any fault in the individual. This no-shame approach decreases the fight, freeze, or flight defensive response among reluctant audiences, helping them hear and accept the issue.

Unconscious bias is prevalent and often doesn’t match our conscious values. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs and prejudices stemming from our tendency to categorize people into social groups. This developed naturally as a way for our ancestors to quickly size up a possible threat. Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate well in modern life.

3. It Takes a Sustained Effort to Prevent and Protect Against Unconscious Bias

After being presented with additional statistics and discussion of unconscious bias, the issue is generally settled. Still, from their subsequent behavior it’s clear that some of these audience members don’t immediately internalize this evidence. It’s much more comforting for their gut reactions to believe that police officers are right and anyone targeted by police deserves it; in turn, they are highly reluctant to accept the need to focus more efforts and energy on protecting black Americans from police violence due to the structural challenges facing these groups.

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The issue of unconscious bias doesn’t match their intuitions, so they reject this concept, despite extensive and strong evidence for its pervasive role in policing. It takes a series of subsequent follow-up conversations and interventions to move the needle. A single training is almost never sufficient, both in my experience and according to research[11].

Conclusion

The examples and points raised illustrate broader patterns you need to follow to recognize unconscious bias. Only by doing so will you be able to determine if, and what type of, intervention is needed to address it.

Unfortunately, our gut reactions lead us to make poor judgment choices when we simply follow our intuitions. Unconscious biases are systemic and need to be addressed in order to make the best decisions[12].

We need to learn about the kind of problems that result from unconscious bias. Then, you need to develop the right mental habits to help you make the best choices[13]. A one-time training is insufficient for doing so. It takes a long-term commitment and constant discipline and efforts to overcome unconscious bias, so get started now.

More Tips on Overcoming Unconscious Bias

Featured photo credit: M.T ElGassier via unsplash.com

Reference

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