Category : Memory

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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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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Memory Memory & Learning

Superpower: Memory

One question which is guaranteed to start a debate: if you could have any superpower, what would you choose?

The most common answers are:

  • Ability to Fly
  • Freezing Time
  • Super-Strength
  • Super-Speed
  • Mind Reading
  • Invisibility

These would all be awesome powers to have, but alas, unless some great discovery or incredible invention comes to light, they’re all pretty unachievable. However, if you ask a group of adults if they could improve anything about the way their brain works, there’s a high chance you’d hear the following answer – “I wish I had a better memory”.

We’ve all been exposed to countless fictional interpretations of outstanding cognitive ability from characters such as Da Vinci, Sherlock Holmes and Mike Ross (Suits).

Sherlock Holmes performed hundreds of experiments to build a knowledge base which enabled him to spot the tiniest details and from them abduct an entire scenario. Da Vinci was able to make connections between completely unrelated disciplines to great effect. Mike Ross is able to recite the BarBri Legal Handbook and also demonstrate an outstanding knowledge of  the minutia of law without breaking a sweat.

All their skills rely on the ability to retain, process and organise a vats amount of data and information – a process we call memory.

So how does memory work?

The brain is made up of 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Neurons receive and transmit electrochemical signals through pathways we call synapses.

All memories begin as stimuli through one or more of the five senses, these stimuli are stored and recorded as electrochemical signals which are sent through pathways in the brain, synapses, from one neuron to another.

The connections between neurons aren’t static, and change over time. With each new experience, more connections are made between each neuron meaning that over time, the brain actually physically re-wires itself – this is known as brain plasticity. I’ve included some links to some great articles on brain plasticity in the resourced sections.

The more links there are, the stronger the connection grows to that memory, habit or skill. The more connections a memory has, the more likely you are to remember it.

A good way to visualise this, is to think of your memories as destinations and the connections are roads.

A large city has thousands of connections and roads leading to it, showing how important it is. This is just like your own name, you’ve had thousands of experiences linking to the use of your name and so you’ll never forget it.

However, the name of 4th King of England could be thought of as a solitary wooden shack in the Scottish highlands. It has only a small dirt road leading to it and is much harder to access, like the memory.

The above analogy does rely on the assumption that memories have fixed locations (i.e. cities), but while this isn’t true, it’s the closest explanation I can give that is easily understood.

Memory is made up of a network of neurons and synapses that work together to create, store and recall information.

We can improve our memories, by increasing the number of mental connections between our existing knowledge and new ideas.

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