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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.

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Last Updated on June 18, 2019

15 Ways to Cultivate Continuous Learning for a Sharper Brain

15 Ways to Cultivate Continuous Learning for a Sharper Brain

Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

Here are some tips for installing the habit of contiuous learning:

1. Always have a book

It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

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3. Get More Intellectual Friends

Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

4. Guided Thinking

Albert Einstein once said,

“Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

5. Put it Into Practice

Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

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6. Teach Others

You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

7. Clean Your Input

Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

8. Learn in Groups

Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

9. Unlearn Assumptions

You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

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Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

11. Start a Project

Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

12. Follow Your Intuition

Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

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13. The Morning Fifteen

Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

14. Reap the Rewards

Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

15 .Make Learning a Priority

Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

In fact, you can train your brain to crave lifelong learning! Here’s how to become a lifelong learner:

How to Train Your Brain to Crave Lifelong Learning (And Why It’s Good)

More Resources About Continuous Learning

Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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