Seriously failing memory is something we fear in old age. On the other side, an especially good memory can be a great advantage for an academic or in many other jobs. Sanjay Gupta, in his book Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age, gives a basic rundown on memory. There are 3 steps to memory: encoding, storing what should be stored and forgetting other things, and retrieval. Donald Hebb said “Neurons that fire together wire together.” This is the physiological fact behind learning. Sanjay Gupta puts it this way:The attachments between brain cells are incredibly dynamic in nature. In other words, they are not
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Seriously failing memory is something we fear in old age. On the other side, an especially good memory can be a great advantage for an academic or in many other jobs. Sanjay Gupta, in his book Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age, gives a basic rundown on memory. There are 3 steps to memory: encoding, storing what should be stored and forgetting other things, and retrieval.
Donald Hebb said “Neurons that fire together wire together.” This is the physiological fact behind learning. Sanjay Gupta puts it this way:
The attachments between brain cells are incredibly dynamic in nature. In other words, they are not fixed like a line of cable. They change and grow (or shrink) continually. Working together in a network, brain cells organize themselves into specialized groups to serve in different kinds of information processing. When one brain cell sends signals to another, the synapse between the two strengthens. The more often a particular signal is sent between them, the stronger the connection grows. That is why “practice makes perfect.” Every time you experience something new, your brain slightly rewires to accommodate that new experience. Novel experiences and learning cause new dendrites to form, whereas repeated behavior and learning cause existing dendrites to become more entrenched. Both are important, of course. The creation of new dendrites, even weak ones, is called plasticity.
Encoding. It wouldn’t make sense for us to remember everything. The first hurdle for an idea or information to get remembered is to be something you pay attention to when you are first exposed to that idea or information. Sanjay:
There is a caveat, however, to all this memory making. You have to pay attention to properly encode a memory…. Because you cannot pay attention to everything you encounter, a lot of potential stimuli is automatically filtered out.
That is why it is so hard for me (and many other people) to learn names: the moment of first meeting someone is packed with other new information beyond the name figure that new person out that competes with their name for attention.
Storing what should be stored and forgetting other things. For academic pursuits, it is especially helpful to know how to get ideas and information from short-term memory into long-term memory. This is necessary because short-term memory can only remember a few things and trying to add more to short-term memory crowds out what was there before. I have a Quartz column about how to get things into long-term memory:
Sanjay Gupta makes the point that forgetting unimportant things is important to making our memory work well:
I should point out that forgetting does have significant value. As I mentioned, if you remembered everything that comes into your brain, your brain would not work properly and your ability to creatively think and imagine would be diminished. Everyday life would be difficult; sure, you’d be able to recall long lists and cite elegiac love poems, but you’d struggle to grasp abstract concepts and even to recognize faces. There’s a group of neurons that are charged with helping the brain to forget, and that are most active at night during sleep when the brain is reorganizing itself and preparing for the next day of incoming information. Scientists discovered these “forgetting” neurons in 2019, which helps us further understand the importance of sleep—and the merits of forgetting. It’s a beautiful paradox: In order to remember, we have to forget to some degree.
The fact that the brain is designed to forget unimportant things is why it is so hard to get academic ideas and information into long-term memory: there often aren’t enough cues to the brain that academic ideas and information are important to you. That is why it takes the kinds of special effort I write about in “The Most Effective Memory Methods are Difficult—and That's Why They Work.”
In addition to need special effort to clue your brain into the value of putting something into long-term memory, two things of great importance on college campuses and many other places can interfere with getting things into long-term memory: alcohol and sleep deprivation. Sanjay writes:
Certain things can interrupt the process of moving a memory from short term to long term, however. Alcohol, for example, puts a glitch in the process. For someone who is intoxicated, the encoding into long-term memory often does not occur very well, or at all…. Sleep deprivation can also disrupt the movement of memories from short to long term. During sleep, your body consolidates and transfers your short-term memories to long-term memories—the kind you’ll have for much of the rest of your life.
Retrieval. Sometimes encoding and storage of memories is just fine, but retrieval is a problem. The metaphor I think of is that the book might be in the library, but the card catalog or computer search process for the book is missing or messed up. Here is what Sanjay says about retrieval:
If you struggle with remembering, say, people’s names and you’re not suffering from a physical disease or dementia, it’s usually not the failing of your entire memory system. It could be a lack of attention at the time you were being introduced and first heard the person’s name. It could also be an inefficient retrieval system. In those cases, people often feel like the name is “on the tip of their tongue.” Sometimes that can easily be rectified by sharpening your memory skills for that particular weakness, encoding or retrieval. Many memory champions started off believing they had poor memory until they spent time practicing techniques focusing on a very specific component of memory.
Memory champions especially hone their retrieval skills. A fun book on that is Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. You can get a taste of that book from my post “Joshua Foer on Memory.”
I have several other posts on learning. Take a look at these:
Conclusion. There is a lot worth knowing about memory and about learning. I am firmly convinced that even those who have been very successful in their lives academically are often operating far inside the possibility frontier for memory and learning.