The brain is an incredible machine. It is supposed that the human brain’s capacity to store information is essentially infinite. Despite this, many of us wish we were smarter or more capable of mastering new information. Though memory is only a component of mastery, when improved, it can lead to cognitive improvement in a wide range of areas. Here are a few memory strategies backed by neuroscience that you can choose to employ for success in school, work, and family life.
This is probably the memory strategy we are most familiar with. You have probably noticed that when you first hear the lyrics of a song you cannot immediately recall them, but after a few days or weeks of listening you can’t get them out of your head. Because connections between neurons in our brain are strengthened through repeated use the more we rehearse information the easier it is to remember. To take advantage of this principle dedicate time for repeatedly going over information. This kind of repetition is most effective when done in spaced intervals, such as 30 minutes each day several days before an exam, as opposed to two hours the day of. Although "cramming" might seem effective, your brain needs to revisit the material over a period of time instead of just focusing on it for one chunk of time. Also, rehearsing before you sleep and again when you wake can drastically increase your ability to recall that information.
This is one of the most powerful memory strategies. It is employed when we spend time making connection between what we are learning and what we already know. Asking “why” questions is a good way to engage in elaboration. Through the forging of new connections between old and new information the strength of previous memories is transferred to the new. Why try to build a new foundation for a house, when you can use an existing foundation?
The more distinct a concept is in our minds the more likely we are to remember it. Distinction can be improved by highlighting the properties of the thing we are learning through contrasts with something of opposing qualities, or focusing on finding differences between things that seem the same at first glance. For example, when learning about the tenants of a free market economy you could contrast those tenants with those of a planned economy. Several studies have even shown that writing vocab words and definitions on a black paper with a white crayon or colored pencil can decrease the time it takes to learn new vocabulary because of the distinctiveness of these new memories in contrast with the frequently seen black writing on white background.
Sometimes we need to memorize a lot of information in a short amount of time. Such as when you need to briefly remember a telephone number. A good way to tackle such tasks is to break the information up into chunks. Roughly 7 items is the average for the pieces of information that can be stored in short term memory. By chunking, one can increase the amount of information remembered by packing more information into each unit. For example, instead of trying to memorizing this random sequence of numbers 4637290200, you could break up the number into three more manageable units 463-729-0200. Your brain has a hard time remembering 10 numbers, but it can easily memorize 3 sets of 3 or 4 numbers.
This technique makes use of the fact that our memory relies on two distinct process, encoding and retrieval. In order to remember something, we must not only get that information into our minds but we must also be able to recall it. When we test ourselves as we learn we practice this essential retrieval component. This can be done by asking ourselves questions that can be answered with the information we are learning. If you are in an academic setting take advantage of the practice questions at the end of each chapter.
Remember that the brain is like a muscle; it will get stronger the more you use it. The more you practice memorizing information and employ memory strategies the easier it will become. Your brain is incredibly powerful and has endless potential. We simply need to know how to use it.
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