Category : Memory & Learning

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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Learning Memory & Learning

Learning While You Sleep

Throughout the day, we are thinking and using our brains. A side effect to this is that our brains slowly build up toxins which can impair our ability to think and learn.

When we sleep, our brain flushes out these toxins – which is why when you’ve been awake for a long time, or had little sleep you don’t feel as sharp, your brain is full of thought-restricting toxins.

During sleep our pre frontal cortex (thinking brain) rests and allows the rest of the brain to work peacefully. While sleeping our brains often revise what we have learned and forge stronger neural links. However, they also clear away ideas and memories which it feels are less important.

When we’re in REM-sleep our brains are in diffused mode and are more likely to build new connections and generate new ideas during this phase. You can prompt yourself to dream about a certain problem or event by thinking or reading about it before bed and even by saying to yourself that you WILL dream about it.

Alternatively, you could try your hand at lucid dreaming. Essentially being able to direct your dreams by being aware that you’re dreaming. You can do this by keeping a dream journal and writing about your dreams the moment you wake (before you forget).

Another method is to “wake” yourself while dreaming (similar to Inception). Great ways to do this are to look at clocks or writing. If you’re dreaming the writing will change and you can’t really focus on the words, additionally, if you look at a clock, look away and then look back again  the time will have changed.

I often ignored it as a student, but a decent sleep has a huge positive impact on much you’re able to learn and remember. Multiple studies have shown that when students cram for an exam the night before, they tend to perform worse than students with the same level of knowledge and confidence who didn’t cram but got 7.5+ hours sleep.

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Learning Memory & Learning

Power of Analogy on Learning

Analogies and metaphor are used throughout our lives and we’re pre-disposed to using metaphors and analogies to both learn and teach, but most people aren’t even conscious they are doing it.

You know a metaphor is coming when you hear, “Just imagine…” “It’s just like…”, “It’s the same as…”, and “Think of it as…”

Metaphors not only help us to learn and understand better, but they increase the chances of you remembering what you’ve learned. Metaphors are essentially showing that something is similar to another thing. metaphors can be really simple, such as saying that Britain looks like a with wearing a hat. A more complex analogy would be comparing sound waves to ripples in a pond.

Because the images are so strong visually, it tends to stay with you for a long time. Additionally, comparing two separate ideas, creates a neural link between them which will strengthen your memory of both ideas.

Metaphors are incredibly pervasive and I’ve seen countless blog posts and articles online where something mundane, like completing a degree, is likened to an exciting subject, such as climbing a mountain and fighting monsters.

They’re particularly useful when trying to understand a difficult concept that you just can’t wrap your head around.

Metaphors work…but why?

Each piece of knowledge or skill we learn is essentially a network or neurons in our brain. Certain ideas and concepts develops into patterns that are easy to follow and we fall into naturally.

Likening a new idea to one you already understand  allow you to link your existing ideas and thought patterns to new ones. They provide a context for the new idea that makes it easier to understand and relate to. As you learn more about a topic, you’ll begin to revise your own metaphors to become more accurate.

A metaphor works like tracing paper, giving us a scaffold on which to attach our ideas. We can then adjust and adapt our understanding of the concept until the scaffolding is no longer needed.

Many breakthroughs have been made by realising that one concept is similar to another.

One of the reasons that some concepts in STEM fields are so hard to learn is that they’re so abstract that there’s no analogy or metaphor than can accurately represent it.

Good teachers understand the value of metaphor and use it daily to make new and foreign concepts more familiar, relatable and meaningful by connecting the new ideas to something the students already understand.

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Learning Memory & Learning

Focused and Diffused Thinking

by Barbra Oakley -

by Dr.Barbara Oakley –

When we’re learning and thinking, there are 2 modes available to us; focused and diffused.

We’re more familiar with focused thinking, it’s what is drilled into us at school and what seems to be valued in the workforce. Focused thinking is when the brain actively zeros in on trying to come up with a solution to a problem or an idea. It’s resource intensive, tiring and eventually stressful.

Focused thinking tends to fall into the same mental paths and patterns that you always use, so using focused thinking to learn about new concepts or find solutions to problems you’ve never encountered before is not very effective.

This is where diffused thinking comes into play.

Diffused thinking is where your brain is in a more relaxed state, often your pre frontal cortex is occupied, such as when we’re running or exercising. The rest of your brain is then free to think openly, unrestricted by your existing thought patterns. This is why so many great ideas tend to occur while you’re in the shower or cleaning the house, you’re not focusing on trying to solve a problem, but your brain is working away in the background to pull all of your knowledge and experiences together for you.

We dream using diffused mode thinking and waking during dreams or day dreams can help you pull the ideas from diffused thinking into focused thinking.

Focused thinking is important and you need deliberate thought and practice to solve most problems, however there come a point where you need to let your brain relax and approach the solution from a different angle.

Unfortunately, you can’t use both simultaneously, but you want to be able to switch between the two. Stopping work for 10 minutes while you read a funny story or play a game online can give your brain enough respite to switch into diffused mode and start churning away.

To learn more about focused and diffuse thinking, check out Barbara Oakley incredible book – Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and course on Learning How to Learn.

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