Sunday, April 11, 2010

How our memory works and how to remember better

Why do we easily remember some facts but not another?
Why do we remember more what we did on last New Year’s Eve than what we do 3 days ago?
How do we improve our memory?

Most people with great memories aren’t really good ‘rememberers’, they are great ‘associators’. Have you’ve seen one of those colored pen advertisements saying that by using those colored pens to make notes, you’ll remember 70% more? It’s not really the color that makes you remember more, it’s the association between the words and the color. For example, let’s say in a biology note you wrote the word ‘chlorophyll’ in green. Your brain registers both the word and color together through different circuits which end at the same part of the brain. Firing through two circuits makes the signal stronger, which in the end, is stored in the brain better. Like making a dent on a piece of steel, hammering with both hands creates a deeper dent compared to using just one hand. So is using 2 of your brain circuits, like in this case the language circuit (for the word chlorophyll) and color recognition circuit (for the color green). The more circuits are fired, the deeper the memory is embedded in our brains.

Now that’s only the association of language (the words) and color. It doesn’t have to be only 2 circuits. The more circuits are fired together, the deeper the memory is embedded. There are unlimited other association, like associating the information with shape by drawing, with sound by reading out loud, or, most profoundly, is by associating it with emotion. Do you remember the details of the dullest day of your life? The days where you’re neither really happy nor sad, you just have nothing to do. All you do is stay on your bed or looking out the window watching the day pass by? Chances are you won’t. But if I ask you to remember the happiest or the saddest day of your life, I believe you can come up with more details. Like the people you talked to, the clothes that you wore, and the people you’ve encountered. Emotion plays an important role in memorization. It’s like the heaviest hammer there is. One strike creates a deep, deep dent. One emotion circuit firing makes a deeply embedded memory. We remember our happy days, and also the worst days of our lives because it is associated with our emotions. To take advantage of it, we can remember more when reading the things that interest and excite us. Remember that you remember all the storyline and how the character in the comic book you like ended up? But you can’t remember the storyline of that historical event you consider boring? That’s memory and emotion in action.

One way to make remembering fun is by eliciting emotional responses by imagination. For example, if you’re required to remember that the main exports of a certain country is coffee, sugarcane and bananas, imagine yourself drinking coffee added with sugar (processed from sugarcane) while eating bananas. That’s really weird and somewhat funny isn’t it? Who drinks coffee with bananas? But that, is what stimulates our emotional response, and makes us remember better. I know it takes time to think of those kinds of associations but the effects on memory are profound!

So, like it or not, to pass exam, you either have to like what you read, or keep on repeating them until it creates a deep ‘memory dent’ inside your brain. Oh, I haven’t explained to you about repetition? Repetition is reading again and again the information that you read. This is really a boring way to memorize, but it works. It’s like you repeatedly hammer a piece of steel, the more you hammer it, the deeper the dent is. Luckily, I do have a technique which is much more effective than just reading repeatedly, but takes a little more effort. Here’s how. The conventional way of note-writing is like this:

“The heart is a muscular organ found in all animals with a circulatory system (including all vertebrates), that is responsible for pumping blood throughout the blood vessels by repeated, rhythmic contractions”

Man, that’s dull, so here’s another way of writing:

“The heart is a ________ organ found in all animals with a ________ system (including all _________), that is responsible for pumping _____ throughout the blood vessels by repeated, ___________ contractions”

Isn’t this familiar? It’s like “fill in the blanks with the correct answer” in primary school! Anyway, first, you read the full text. Then you make a note like the above. Now, the most important part is you leave out the words that are critical to remember. Like ‘circulatory’ or 'rhythmic'. It doesn’t make sense to leave out the word ‘the’ or 'with' does it? This is not an English prepositions test! The trick is like this, on the next page, you fill in the answers to those blank spots
  • muscular
  • circulatory
  • vertebrates
  • blood
  • rhythmic
So, the next time you read the note, you try to remember what the correct word for the blank spots is. If you cannot remember, halt it, don’t turn to the next page! Take a guess! After you have taken guesses of all the answers, then you turn to the next page. If your answer is correct, you will stimulate your emotion of happiness. Yay! But, if you got it wrong, don’t worry. Because you took the guess instead of just looking at the answer, you in a way telling your brain that “Hey, you’re giving out the wrong facts here!”. The brain will register the error, and, as a result will make you remember the answer better. Better yet if you gave the wrong answer because you are confusing it with another fact. That mistake will clear up the confusion. As they say, we learn more from our mistakes.

So, by doing this kind of note-writing, you don’t have to make the mistakes in the exams. Make the mistakes now, in your room, so that when you enter the exam hall, you’ve already done enough mistakes to make you a perfect scorer! (You might ask why not just buy an exercise book, do the exercise and check your own answers instead of painstakingly writing those ‘fill in the blanks notes’. But if you’re asking this question you might be a primary or high-school student. In university, we don’t have many exercise books to test our knowledge. Lecturers like to write slides and slides of presentation and expect us to remember word by word. They don’t like to do exercise books. So this is one of the way)


sahel al-fateh said...

bravo bro..nice tips..!

Lutfi Fadil said...

Thx, hope you'll find it useful in medical school!

kiddocrash said...

nice (!!) thanx 4 sharing =)

Anonymous said...

Impressive, the things you've written, the way you correlate what you've learnt, the commitment you've got for your blog, and you dont disappoint your readers, they're all admirable.

Keep 'em coming! :)

ainShahajar said...

like =)

Lutfi Fadil said...

Thx everyone 4 the comments! U c, it's u guys who keep me motivated to write more. So, stay tuned!

Anonymous said...

Very useful tips!Tp camner nak dikaitkan brain ngan hati ek? If hati terhijab? Rasanye ada tak kajian pasal bende ni? If u can make some comments, it will be helpful for me.

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