We forget almost everything we learn; the gifts you received on your fifth birthday, the faces of your secondary school classmates, the last thing your friend said to you before they went on holiday. It enters the short term memory, then days, weeks, sometimes seconds later, it’s gone.
Generally that’s not a bad thing. We receive an endless stream of information every second, and some discernment for memory is essential. But it is possible to teach your brain what you want it to remember.
To make your memory perform for you, it pays to know how it works, and which analogies to abandon.
Memory is not a machine. It is not a filing cabinet. It is instead a scattering of neurological sparks that are reinforced by emotional emphasis, repetition and prioritisation.
Long term memory of a topic, whether revision for exams or a foreign language requires engagement. That means bringing as much of yourself to the process as possible. Read, contemplate, formulate ideas in your own words. Make notes. Make links between different topic areas, visualise ideas and how they relate. Explain the concepts to a friend.
You can piggyback the power of pre-existing memories, by making topics relevant to your own life and experiences.
James Gupta, founder and CEO of Synap explains: ‘If you’re going to read something then it’s important to stay mentally engaged by making notes, highlighting or just actively considering what it is you’re reading, rather than just staring at words on a page or screen.’
His company allows users to make quizzes to test themselves intelligently at increasing intervals. The idea was developed as James and his founder were revising for their medical exams at the University of Leeds.
If you want to remember something long term, the best time to remember is just before you almost forget it, and when you almost forget it after that, at increasing intervals. Flashcards or apps like Synap can be a good way to build a remembering program.
But testing goes beyond quizzes. Consider the reliance on smartphones for referencing the same fact again and again. Perhaps a date, a phone number or the location of a restaurant.
When you can access the date of a battle, or the name of a disease with a four word Google query, you never have to reinforce your own knowledge. Short term memory never becomes long term memory. Perhaps pause before you google in future.
Gupta recommends cutting out the distractions: ‘We’re increasingly starting to see that multi-tasking isn’t a thing, neurologically speaking, we just flip between single-tasks at a rapid pace, which requires effort and is inefficient. Instead try to single-task by focusing all your attention on one thing.’ Tied up into this is time management. ‘Study in short, 15-20 minute chunks throughout the day – much more than that and you’ll begin to lose focus, and will be limited by the fact that your short term memory has a very limited capacity. You need to give it time to consolidate.’
In short, keep it short.
Stop learning to learn
Gupta tells me that ‘when not actively focusing on a task, your brain is consolidating your memories and prioritising the strengthening of new neural pathways so you can recall information more reliably in the future.’ This can happen during sleep too.
This can feel counterintuitive, and for the student cramming for an exam something akin to heresy, but giving the wonder and the marvel that is your brain the chance to process the things you want it to while you are working on other tasks, or even sleeping, is effective and easy.