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9 Facts About Your Memory That You Won’t Believe

9 Facts About Your Memory That You Won’t Believe
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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.

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Featured photo credit: Johan Bichel Lindegaard via flickr.com

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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