Category : Memory & Learning

Memory Memory & Learning

Why Should You Write Everything Down?

Throughout the course of the day, you’ll hear, read and see lots of things which we can trigger ideas or thoughts. We assume that we’ll remember all these thoughts, but in reality, most ideas are gone within a few minutes of them first popping into your head. How many times have you had a profound thought in the shower or just before bed, to find that a few hours later, not only don’t you remember the idea, but you don’t even recall ever having had one – unless you have trained your memory of course.

There is a solution, it’s not new and it’s not radical but it is effective. Write everything down. It seems like this is a rookie piece of advice and to be honest it is. But if you write all your thoughts down, by the end of the day, you’ll be surprised at how many good ideas and thoughts go through your mind in a single day.

I recommend buying or choosing a dedicated notebook to take notes in. After all, who wouldn’t want to follow in the footsteps of one of our most renowned geniuses? Leonardo da Vinci was famous for keeping copious notes and his notebooks have been pored over by millions.

Keeping a notebook has multiple benefits:

  • You don’t lose any of your potentially great ideas
  • It allows you to create a database of information, giving your brain a bit of a rest
  • Writing an idea down actual makes you more likely to remember it as the brain

The alternatives are the many online tools and apps which offer notetaking functionality (Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep etc.) however, they don’t have the benefits of physically writing down. The act of writing focuses the brain on the information as you not only need to hold it in your short-term memory, but you need to convert the thought into physical action and then engage the language centre of your brain for that movement to produce something with meaning.

Don’t underestimate the power of keeping a notebook, the greatest minds in the world all did – why ignore a winning formula?

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Learning Memory & Learning

How Much Can Your Learn At Once?

If you remember anything from your school days, it’s probably that learning must be structured and follow a set path. This structure means that you’re only supposed to move onto other skills, once you’ve mastered the one you’re currently practising.

However, a number of studies suggest that a more effective way of learning is to interleave. This approach is promoted by Dr. Robert Bjork, the director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab, by Dr. Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University and Steven C. Pan, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, San Diego.

In the short-term, block-learning is more effective, but in the long-term, interleaving your studies with difference subjects allows your brain to make many more connections that usual, sometimes creating bridges between the two, usually, unconnected subjects.

The more connections the brain has, the more creative you are able to be and the stronger your memory will be.

I highly encourage you to read Barbara Oakley’s book – A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) or take her popular online course Learning How to Learn.

Further Reading:

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Memory Memory & Learning

10 Common Memory Myths

Memory is a fascinating, but hugely misunderstood aspect of our brains. Over the years, popular culture has coloured our understanding of how our memories work and have created a number of long-lasting myths which just aren’t true. Here are the most common memory myths:

1. Hypnosis can retrieve forgotten memories.

Almost every study and piece of evidence shows that not only does hypnosis have no positive impact on memory recall, but it can actually harm a person’s faith in their memories. They may become more confident in memories that may be incredibly inaccurate or influence by the guidance of the hypnotist or therapist.

2. People can repress or forget traumatic memories.

Possibly one of the most common myths is that we can repress and bury damaging and hurtful memories deep in our subconscious. It’s more often the case that people don’t like talking about or reliving these memories, so they just try to ignore them. When they feel safe and confident with a therapist or a person, they may feel ready to disclose the events. The therapist may view this as having unlocked a “repressed” memory.

3. Memories are fixed and don’t change.

Multiple studies have shown that it’s actually quite easy to not only alter existing memories, but plant completely new ones. Even a slight difference in phrasing when asking questions about a memory can change our experience of it. It’s also quite easy, particularly for parents, to implant false memories in a person that the person becomes sure really happened.

4. Memory is infallible like a camera.

Unfortunately, because we are humans our memories, just like our decision-making and judgement are influenced by a multitude of biases and emotions. We remember our own perception of events which could be incomplete or even coloured by misunderstanding. We’ll also attach our own interpretation to events and these interpretations can warp and change the memory. Your interpretation of events as a child would be vastly different to your interpretation as an adult. We don’t notice this and will be SURE that we remembered correctly.

5. Confidence in a memory doesn’t indicate that the memory is reliable.

As explained above, our memories tend to be quite inaccurate and regardless of how a memory has been affected, we’re usually quite confident in our recall. Unfortunately our confidence in a  memory bears no relevance to how accurate that memory is.

6. We forget things gradually over time.

It makes sense that memories will fade over time and become less and less accurate. This is what happens with the rest of our bodies when we age, we get slower and weaker. Our memories however don’t degrade as shown in Pixar’s Inside Out, but the majority of them are forgotten not long after the event occurs. When we sleep, our short-term memories are stored as long-term memories, but not everything that occurs during the day makes the cut. The paradox is that we don’t realise we’ve forgotten something, because we don’t remember experiencing it.

7. People with amnesia forget who they are.

It’s commonly believed that people with amnesia forget their own names and their histories, awakening with a blank slate after an accident. This is a misconception. In reality, people with amnesia usually have no problems remembering their past, but their brains have trouble converting short-term memories into long-term memories. 50 First Dates featuring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore demonstrates this quite well.

8. Memory is a storage centre.

We tend to view our memories as filing cabinets or libraries an organised physical system where our memories are field. While it’s a great analogy to describe something as complex as memory, it’s inaccurate. Memory is actually an electrochemical process which occurs throughout the brain and not in a particular place – memories are actually networks of neurons.

9. Eventually your memory will fill up.

Research has shown that so far humans have shown an unlimited capacity for memory. If there is a memory limit, we haven’t found it yet. Even the closest hypotheses surrounding memory capacity outline that our memory limit is so large that a human could never experience enough in a single lifetime to come close to filling it.

10. Some people just have bad memories.

With the right memory techniques (memory palaces, mnemonics, number systems etc.) and a little practice, even the most forgetful person can supercharge their memory and greatly

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Memory Memory & Learning

“The Knowledge” and How It Changes the Brain

First things first – the knowledge is a test that all London taxi drivers have to pass to get their hackney carriage (taxi) licence. In the test they have to answer questions about 320 routes, landmarks and street names. Doesn’t sound so bad right?

Well…unlike US cities which are laid out in a friendly and easy to remember grid, London as a city grew organically and therefore it’s streets are far from uniform and follow no real pattern. Those 320 routes cover a staggering 25,000 streets and just under 20,000 landmark, all within a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross station.

Not only does the test cover routes and landmarks, but participants have to use their knowledge of these routes to advice the fastest routes for their passengers. The process of learning these routes on average takes 3-4 years and is equivalent to an undergraduate degree not only in length, but in intensity. Only half actually pass the test and go on to be London cabbies.

Could you remember 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks? It seems like it would take a special kind of person with an incredible memory.

Researchers at the University College of London published a report in Current Biology journal which explored the effects of memorising a disorganised system on the brain. To do this they followed the progress of 79 would-be cabbies while they were training to pass “the knowledge”. Throughout the learning process, the brains of the participants were mapped by MRI scanners, giving the researchers an idea of how their studies were affecting their brains.

Of the 79 students, only 39 passed and went on to become cabbies. What the researchers discovered was ground-breaking. They compared the MRI scans of the 39 who passed with those who had failed and found that the grey matter in the hippocampus had actually grown over time. The students who had failed didn’t show any similar brain development.

Thanks to the way we evolved as nomadic hunter-gatherers, our spatial memories are particularly strong and the knowledge is the perfect demonstration of our ability to use and improve our spatial memory.

When compared with non-cabbies, cabbies drastically outperformed on memory tests involving landmarks and spatially-based tests. However, they had no similar advantage when taking tests involving visual or other types of memory.

The implications of this study were huge, particularly in the adult education industry as the study demonstrated that the brain is able to adapt perfectly to learning new tasks and doing so can even change the physical structure of the brain.

These findings are in line with ideas posed by Robert Greene in his book Mastery. Throughout the book, Greene explains how after 10,000 hours of successful deliberate practice, not only does one master a subject, but the physical structure of the brain is altered so that insights which would normally take hours of thought and reflection could be produced in moments.

The downside was that these new cells follow the “use it or lose it” rule. Retired cabbies who stop using their spatial knowledge will find that their hippocampus will shrink back to normal size over time



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Learning Memory & Learning

Lucid Dreaming

Ever had one of those dreams where you suddenly become aware that you’re dreaming and you’re able to (for a short time) control your dreams?

This is called lucid dreaming and is a major feature in the film Inception.

Most of the time when you’re dreaming, you have no idea and you just go along with the odd situations that you find yourself in – often rapidly changing and seemingly random – though they don’t seem so while you’re sleeping.

What if while you were dreaming, you were able to “wake” yourself and realise that you are in fact dreaming? While we dream our sub-conscious minds are in full control and so being in control while in this state gives you access to the incredible creative resources of your sub-conscious.

Lucid dreaming is when you become aware that you are dreaming, WHILE you’re dreaming. This empowers you to influence the content of your dreams. Luckily, lucid dreaming is a skill you can develop, giving you much more control over your dreams.

Why is this important?

Aside from imposing temporary paralysis so we don’t physically act out our dreams, our brains don’t distinguish between dreams and reality. Thoughts and actions that occur during dreams are treat by your brain as though they are actually happening.

This means that any actions that would strengthen neural pathways while you’re awake, will trigger the same response during sleep. Additionally, you’re brain is more susceptible to these neural changes during REM sleep – your brain is able to adapt more while you are asleep.

While we dream our subconscious minds are in full control and so being in control while in this state gives you access to the incredible creative resources of your subconscious.

You are able to generate ideas and potentially solve problems much quicker and with greater creativity than during your waking state. Also, when we sleep, our perception of time is skewed and we experience time as being 44% longer – essentially giving us more time to dream.

Dream control and dream awareness are connected, but you aren’t required to know that you’re dreaming in order to exert control, conversely, being aware that you’re dreaming doesn’t always give you control.

Lucid dreaming offers us a big opportunity – if you are able to control your dreams, then you can practice and learn during your sleep.

Step 1 – Remembering Your Dreams

Focus for a few moments on the dream and try to remember as much as possible, then write everything down – situations, companions, images, sounds and even feelings. When you first start recording your dreams, the details will be sparse and vague.

Step 2 – Analysing Your Dreams

Once you’ve been recording your dreams for a few weeks, read through the pages of your journal and try to identify any recurring themes. I don’t mean from a Freudian analysis involving being chased or nightmares – but elements that are always present when you dream.

For a lot of people, it’s almost impossible to tell the time in a dream. If you look at a clock or a watch you’ll find that it will change each time you look at it.

This is the same for anything written down. The words in books, letters and magazines will change, be difficult to read and probably not make any sense.

If you spot this, you can almost be sure that you’re dreaming.

Step 3 – Reality Checks

A few common reality checks are seeing if you can:

  • Breathe underwater
  • Breathe with your mouth or nose covered
  • See through closed eyes

Once you become aware of your dreams, you will begin to slowly wake up and then your control over the dream slips. I find that breathing deeply (while dreaming) when this starts to happen can help me to stay asleep.

Reality checks are small tests you can perform while awake and dreaming which can tell you that whether what you’re experiencing is reality or imagination. Certain things just aren’t possible in real life, but occur often in dreams.

  • Breathe with your mouth or nose covered.
  • See through closed eyes. Closing your eyes in a dream usually has no effect on your vision.
  • Read a book, magazine or clock. The words and numbers will change in a dream and you’ll find that you can’t actually read them.

It’s important to carry out these checks when you’re awake and doing routine tasks. When you’re asleep, you can’t consciously choose to carry out the checks because at that stage, you’ve no idea you’re not awake. By performing these checks throughout your day, you train your mind to do it regularly and you’ll soon find yourself doing it  spontaneously in dreams.

Step 4 – Staying Asleep

Once you become aware of your sleeping state, your dreams will begin to break down and you will begin to slowly wake up. When this happens you’ll find that your control over the dream slips. I find that breathing deeply (while dreaming) when this starts to happen can help me to stay asleep for a little while longer.

Step 5 – Enjoy and Learn

Now you’re asleep and have full, on-demand access to the most creative areas of your mind. Use this time to come up with creative solutions, ideas or to practice a skill. Remember, the brain doesn’t distinguish between actions taken during sleep or wakefulness – you’ll get the full benefit as though you’d practiced while awake.

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