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9 Facts About Your Memory That You Won’t Believe

9 Facts About Your Memory That You Won’t Believe

Memory is an essential human skill, relied upon on as a second-to-second basis for survival, yet still mysterious and poorly understood. Here are 9 things you don’t know about it, that you’ll wish you knew sooner.

1. Memory is enhanced by forgetting things first.

Conventional wisdom says that if you want to remember something, you should repeat it often, and keep it fresh in your memory. Husband and wife research team Robert and Elizabeth Bjork out of UCLA suggest otherwise. According to their research,

You need to forget a new piece of information at some level before remembering it in order to make that memory robust over time.

The more a new memory fades before you go looking for it, the more it’s subsequent “retrieval strength” improves.

2. Memory thrives on storytelling.

In his 2012 bestseller, Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer tells tall tales of memory champions recalling entire randomly shuffled decks of playing cards, from memory in less than a minute. How do they accomplish these miraculous feats? They get really good at telling memorable stories to themselves while weaving in what they’re trying to remember. Because the human brain is built for storytelling,

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The more things you can link together into a narrative, the more readily you’ll be able to recall them later on.

3. Memory is supercharged when new information is visual.

What do we typically associate with learning new technical information? That’s right, textbooks. But the least effective component of textbooks may just be the “text” itself. Yes, we generally find it easier and faster to process information in visual form (if you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I’ll just wait for it to come out as a movie,” you know what I’m talking about). But does it help us learn better? Richard Mayer, psychology researcher at UCSB, indicates yes. His research demonstrates that:

Text paired with a relevant visual significantly improves the amount of information retained by novice learners.

4. Memory is made robust by a rich environment.

Some people swear they can write better in the coffee shop with the low hum of conversation. This may be true. As Benedict Carey indicates in his recent bestseller, How We Learn, a large body of psychology research shows that:

Studying in a diverse range of environments can actually improve the robustness of your ability to recall that information in the future.

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It turns out, “find a quiet place to concentrate” may not be the best advice if you’re trying to build a memory that will stand the test of time.

5. Memory is not all about repetition.

You’ve heard it before: “Practice makes perfect.” In reality, this common phrase should be updated to say: “A specific type of difficult practice makes perfect.” Back to the Bjork research team again – they found that:

Repetition is key, but is most powerful when “interleaved” with unrelated information to make the brain work harder.

This forces us to have to go back and “retrieve” that information from our long-term memory stores each time we do it, strengthening that neural connection for future use much more than simply repeating something over and over (which offloads some of the work to your short-term memory). So when it comes to practice, there is a level of “desirable difficulty,” as they call it, to any task that will make it much easier to recall in the future.

6. Memory uses procrastination as an important tool.

How many times have you gotten frustrated with yourself for procrastinating on an important assignment? Well don’t get too upset, because research indicates that procrastination is actually an important tool for getting things done. When we’re not actively focusing on something, it allows your subconscious to work on ideas in the background while you do other things. This effect is particularly noticeable during menial tasks (ever wonder why you get so many eureka moments in the shower?) and sleep. Bottom line:

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Your brain needs time to integrate new ideas with existing memory, allowing them to percolate and connect.

7. Memory relies on your brain to “fill in the gaps.”

When a memory gets stored in your brain you retain its key features (the shape of someone’s face, what shoes they were wearing, how hard the wind was blowing), but most else is pretty much a blur. But what happens when someone asks you what the clouds looked like that day?

When faced with a fuzzy aspect of a memory (or one that wasn’t actually stored in the first place) your brain tends to “fill in the gaps” with what it “thinks” most probably was the case.

That’s why eye-witness accounts are so unreliable. Each time a witness is asked to describe what they saw (apart from the fact that people tend to see what they want to see), their memory is immediately contaminated with new information that is being transplanted into the past.

8. Memory gets broken up in bits and pieces in different parts of your brain.

The most common analogy for information storage in the brain is that of a computer. A new string of bits gets written in a particular location, and stored in the hard drive. Turns out, that’s not really how it goes.

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Your memory is more like a distributed filing system.

Smells go over here. Emotional intensity goes down there. Visual information gets stored here. And then it’s the job of the hippocampus to pull everything back together. To remember it in the same way your brain has to pull everything back together, like a puzzle.

9. Memory gets prioritized by emotion.

Ever wonder why your most vivid childhood memories usually involve an intense emotion (fear, rejection, elation, pride)? As John Medina, author of Brain Rules explains:

Emotions “attach themselves” to new information in the brain, acting as an indicator of importance.

The stronger the intensity, the more clearly and readily you’ll be able to recall that memory.

Featured photo credit: Johan Bichel Lindegaard via flickr.com

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Last Updated on August 21, 2018

8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

You go to the gym to train your muscles. You run outside or go for hikes to train your endurance. Or, maybe you do neither of those, but still wish you exercised more.

Well, here is how to train one of the most important parts of your body: your brain.

When you train your brain, you will:

  • Avoid embarrassing situations. You remember his face, but what was his name?
  • Be a faster learner in all sorts of different skills. Hello promotion, here I come!
  • Avoid diseases that hit as you get older. No, thanks Alzheimer’s; you and I are just not a good fit.

So how to train your brain to learn faster and remember more?

1. Work your memory

Twyla Tharp, a NYC-based renowned choreographer has come up with the following memory workout:

When she watches one of her performances, she tries to remember the first twelve to fourteen corrections she wants to discuss with her cast without writing them down.

If you think this is anything less than a feat, then think again. In her book The Creative Habit she says that most people cannot remember more than three.

The practice of both remembering events or things and then discussing them with others has actually been supported by brain fitness studies.

Memory activities that engage all levels of brain operation—receiving, remembering and thinking—help to improve the function of the brain.

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Now, you may not have dancers to correct, but you may be required to give feedback on a presentation, or your friends may ask you what interesting things you saw at the museum. These are great opportunities to practically train your brain by flexing your memory muscles.

What is the simplest way to help yourself remember what you see? Repetition.

For example, say you just met someone new.

“Hi, my name is George”

Don’t just respond with, “Nice to meet you”. Instead, say, “Nice to meet you George.” Got it? Good.

2. Do something different repeatedly

By actually doing something new over and over again, your brain wires new pathways that help you do this new thing better and faster.

Think back to when you were three years old. You surely were strong enough to hold a knife and a fork just fine. Yet, when you were eating all by yourself, you were creating a mess.

It was not a matter of strength, you see. It was a matter of cultivating more and better neural pathways that would help you eat by yourself just like an adult does.

And guess what? With enough repetition you made that happen!

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But how does this apply to your life right now?

Say you are a procrastinator. The more you don’t procrastinate, the more you teach your brain not to wait for the last minute to make things happen.

Now, you might be thinking “Duh, if only not procrastinating could be that easy!”

Well, it can be. By doing something really small, that you wouldn’t normally do, but is in the direction of getting that task done, you will start creating those new precious neural pathways.

So if you have been postponing organizing your desk, just take one paper and put in its right place. Or, you can go even smaller. Look at one piece of paper and decide where to put it: Trash? Right cabinet? Another room? Give it to someone?

You don’t actually need to clean up that paper; you only need to decide what you need to do with it.

That’s how small you can start. And yet, those neural pathways are still being built. Gradually, you will transform yourself from a procrastinator to an in-the-moment action taker.

3. Learn something new

It might sound obvious, but the more you use your brain, the better its going to perform for you.

For example, learning a new instrument improves your skill of translating something you see (sheet music) to something you actually do (playing the instrument).

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Learning a new language exposes your brain to a different way of thinking, a different way of expressing yourself.

You can even literally take it a step further, and learn how to dance. Studies indicate that learning to dance helps seniors avoid Alzheimer’s. Not bad, huh?

4. Follow a brain training program

The Internet world can help you improve your brain function while lazily sitting on your couch. A clinically proven program like BrainHQ can help you improve your memory, or think faster, by just following their brain training exercises.

5. Work your body

You knew this one was coming didn’t you? Yes indeed, exercise does not just work your body; it also improves the fitness of your brain.

Even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions. But it’s not just that–exercise actually helps your brain create those new neural connections faster. You will learn faster, your alertness level will increase, and you get all that by moving your body.

Now, if you are not already a regular exerciser, and already feel guilty that you are not helping your brain by exercising more, try a brain training exercise program like Exercise Bliss.

Remember, just like we discussed in #2, by training your brain to do something new repeatedly, you are actually changing yourself permanently.

6. Spend time with your loved ones

If you want optimal cognitive abilities, then you’ve got to have meaningful relationships in your life.  Talking with others and engaging with your loved ones helps you think more clearly, and it can also lift your mood.

If you are an extrovert, this holds even more weight for you. At a class at Stanford University, I learned that extroverts actually use talking to other people as a way to understand and process their own thoughts.

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I remember that the teacher told us that after a personality test said she was an extrovert, she was surprised. She had always thought of herself as an introvert. But then, she realized how much talking to others helped her frame her own thoughts, so she accepted her new-found status as an extrovert.

7. Avoid crossword puzzles

Many of us, when we think of brain fitness, think of crossword puzzles. And it’s true–crossword puzzles do improve our fluency, yet studies show they are not enough by themselves.

Are they fun? Yes. Do they sharpen your brain? Not really.

Of course, if you are doing this for fun, then by all means go ahead. If you are doing it for brain fitness, then you might want to choose another activity

8. Eat right – and make sure dark chocolate is included

Foods like fish, fruits, and vegetables help your brain perform optimally. Yet, you might not know that dark chocolate gives your brain a good boost as well.

When you eat chocolate, your brain produces dopamine. And dopamine helps you learn faster and remember better. Not to mention, chocolate contains flavonols, antioxidants, which also improve your brain functions.

So next time you have something difficult to do, make sure you grab a bite or two of dark chocolate!

Now that you know how to train your brain, it’s actually time to start doing.

Don’t just consume this content and then go on with your life as if nothing has changed. Put this knowledge into action and become smarter than ever!

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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