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Writing and Remembering: Why We Remember What We Write

Writing and Remembering: Why We Remember What We Write

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on note-taking skills. One common experience many people have, and that several people mentioned in response to that post, is that when they take good notes they remember things well enough that they rarely end up having to look at their notes again.

In fact, it seems that writing anything down makes us remember it better. On the other hand, not writing things down is just asking to forget. It’s a kind of mental Catch-22: the only way not to have to write things down is to write them down so you remember them well enough not to have written them down.

Oy.

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Curious about this, I decided to do some research into the psychology of writing and memory. As it happens, I have quite a background in the anthropology of memory, none of which did me any good reviewing the psychological literature. There’s not a lot out there, not that I could easily find anyway (not being familiar with the psychological literature probably hampered my search) but what I did find was interesting. Seems it’s not simply wishful thinking that lets us ignore our notes once they’re written; there’s good evidence that the act of writing itself helps us remember things better.

Not all things, though. What’s especially interesting is that writing things down appears to help us remember the important stuff, and that the better our notes are the more likely we are to remember.

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But first, some basic neuropsychology (!). The brain is divided up into several regions that process different kinds of information. There are separate regions that process visual information, auditory information, emotions, verbal communication, and so on. Although these different regions communicate with each other (for example, when we look at a piece of art we often have an emotional response, which we might then transmit to the language center of our brain to share verbally) each of them has its own processes it has to complete first. (OK, this is all a vast over-simplification, but what can I say? I didn’t take notes that day in Neuropsychology 101…)

When we listen to a lecture, the part of our brain that handles listening and language is engaged. This passes some information on to our memory, but doesn’t seem to be very discriminating in how it does this. So crucial information is treated exactly the same way that trivia is treated.

When we take notes, though, something happens. As we’re writing, we create spatial relations between the various bits of information we are recording. Spatial tasks are handled by another part of the brain, and the act of linking the verbal information with the spatial relationship seems to filter out the less relevant or important information.

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So here’s what happens: in one psychological test involving students watching a lecture on psychology (psychologists who work in academia have a virtually unlimited supply of research subjects — their students!) students who did not take notes remembered the same number of points as the students who did take notes. That is, the mere act of taking notes did not increase the amount of stuff they memorized. Both groups of students remembered around 40% of the information covered in the lecture (which as a professor makes me sad, but I guess that’s the way humans work). But the students who had taken notes remembered a higher proportion of key facts, while those who did not take notes remembered a more or less random assortment of points covered in the lecture.

What this and other tests suggest is that when we write — before we write, although indistinguishably so — we are putting some degree of thought into evaluating and ordering the information that we are receiving. That process, and not the notes themselves, is what helps fix ideas more firmly in our minds, leading to greater recall down the line.

Which is fine for notes, but what about other kids of writing? Apparently the same thing happens: in building a link between the spatial part of our brain that we need to use in order to make marks on paper that make sense (that is, to write) and the verbal part of our brain that we need to compose meaningful utterances to supply our writing hand with, we strengthen the process by which important information is stored in our memory.

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But there’s something else going on, too. When we write something down, research suggests that as far as our brain is concerned, it’s as if we were doing that thing. Writing seems to act as a kind of mini-rehearsal for doing. I’ve written before about how visualizing doing something can “trick” the brain into thinking it’s actually doing it, and writing something down seems to use enough of the brain to trigger this effect. Again, this leads to greater memorization, the same way that visualizing the performance of a new skill can actually improve our skill level.

The first thing just about every personal productivity writer in the world tells us is to write everything down. If you’re a “writer-downer”, you know how important this is, and you know that it works. Hopefully, now you know a little bit about why it works, too.

More by this author

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And Its Effect on Your Brain) Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques Back to Basics: Capture Your Ideas

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1 8 Steps to Continuous Self Motivation Even During the Difficult Times 2 Why Being A Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect 3 Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) 4 How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone 5 The Science of Setting Goals (And Its Effect on Your Brain)

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Last Updated on May 12, 2020

8 Steps to Continuous Self Motivation Even During the Difficult Times

8 Steps to Continuous Self Motivation Even During the Difficult Times

Many of us find ourselves in motivational slumps that we have to work to get out of. Sometimes it’s like a continuous cycle where we are motivated for a period of time, fall out and then have to build things back up again.

There is nothing more powerful for self-motivation than the right attitude. You can’t choose or control your circumstance, but you can choose your attitude towards your circumstances.

How I see this working is while you’re developing these mental steps, and utilizing them regularly, self-motivation will come naturally when you need it.

The key, for me, is hitting the final step to Share With Others. It can be somewhat addictive and self-motivating when you help others who are having trouble.

A good way to have self motivation continuously is to implement something like these 8 steps from Ian McKenzie.[1] I enjoyed Ian’s article but thought it could use some definition when it comes to trying to build a continuous drive of motivation. Here is a new list on how to self motivate:

1. Start Simple

Keep motivators around your work area – things that give you that initial spark to get going.

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These motivators will be the Triggers that remind you to get going.

2. Keep Good Company

Make more regular encounters with positive and motivated people. This could be as simple as IM chats with peers or a quick discussion with a friend who likes sharing ideas.

Positive and motivated people are very different from the negative ones. They will help you grow and see opportunities during tough times.

Here’re more reasons why you should avoid negative people: 10 Reasons Why You Should Avoid Negative People

3. Keep Learning

Read and try to take in everything you can. The more you learn, the more confident you become in starting projects.

You can train yourself to crave lifelong learning with these tips: How to Develop a Lifelong Learning Habit

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4. See the Good in Bad

When encountering obstacles or challenging goals, you want to be in the habit of finding what works to get over them.

Here are 10 tips to make positive thinking easy.

5. Stop Thinking

Just do. If you find motivation for a particular project lacking, try getting started on something else. Something trivial even, then you’ll develop the momentum to begin the more important stuff.

When you’re thinking and worrying about it too much, you’re just wasting time. These tried worry busting techniques can help you.

6. Know Yourself

Keep notes on when your motivation sucks and when you feel like a superstar. There will be a pattern that, once you are aware of, you can work around and develop.

Read for yourself how the magic of marking down your mood works.

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7. Track Your Progress

Keep a tally or a progress bar for ongoing projects. When you see something growing, you will always want to nurture it.

Take a look at these 4 simple ways to track your progress so you have motivation to achieve your goals.

8. Help Others

Share your ideas and help friends get motivated. Seeing others do well will motivate you to do the same. Write about your success and get feedback from readers.

Helping others actually helps yourself, here’s why.

What I would hope happens here is you will gradually develop certain skills that become motivational habits.

Once you get to the stage where you are regularly helping others keep motivated – be it with a blog or talking with peers – you’ll find the cycle continuing where each facet of staying motivated is refined and developed.

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Too Many Steps?

If you could only take one step? Just do it!

Once you get started on something, you’ll almost always just get into it and keep going. There will be times when you have to do things you really don’t want to: that’s where the other steps and tips from other writers come in handy.

However, the most important thing, that I think is worth repeating, is to just get started.

Get that momentum going and then when you need to, take Ian’s Step 7 and Take A Break. No one wants to work all the time!

More Tips for Boosting Motivation

Featured photo credit: Japheth Mast via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Ian McKenzie: 8 mental steps to self-motivation

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