Our brain has the ability to store almost unlimited amounts of information indefinitely. We forget because it is the result of incorrectly or incompletely encoded memories, or problems with the retrieval (recall) process. In one of my earlier posts, I have written about how school has reduced learning to the level of trying to recall disparate pieces of information or “factlets”. Yet, school do little to teach stduents to be able to store and recall properly. It is often a hit-and-miss affair. We can avoid this if we understand how the brain works at storing and retrieving information.
It is a well-known fact that retrieving information from the brain actually becomes easier with understanding of the meaning of the information. In other words, when information becomes knowledge. Information becomes knowledge when it has meaning to the person. For information to become meaningful it must be placed in the brain so that it becomes linked to other “pieces”of knowledge that already has meaning to the person. This link is crucial for retrieval and understanding of the new bit of information that is being added.
Another aspect of how the brain works is also important for us to understand in order for us to store and retrieve things in our brain or memory effectively. In terms of storage, experts have long divided the kind of memory storage in the brain to two basic types: short-term memory and long-term memory. From the names given to the two types of memory, it is obvious one is retained in our memory for only a short duration. We are more likely to forget things stored in the short-term memory bank after a short time. This is why, for example, if we forget names of people we have just met easily.
As for long-term memory, this is the part of our memory that is retained over the longest period of time due to some consolidation that has been done to that memory. The greater the consolidation, the more that memory is used or repeated. Long-term memories are actually stored in groups that are made ready to be used together in the same pattern that was originally created. It seems also that long-term memory may even be encoded redundantly many times in various parts of our brain. So if one engram (memory trace) is wiped out, there will be duplicate or alternative pathways for the memory to be retrieved.
Therefore, among some of the things that are required to be successful academically, a student will need to be able to efficiently store a lot of information in their long-term memory quickly, and also be able to retrieve them quickly. As mentioned before this is done through consolidation. Consolidation can be done through repetition. But repetition alone may not be the most effective method of recalling (remembering) information. As has been mentioned earlier, one way to consolidate our memory, or to put it in long-term memory, is to seek to achieve understanding. Understanding, which comes about when disparate bits of information is organised in a coherent meaningful pattern, helps in consolidation because duplicate or alternative pathways for the memory to be retrieved are created. These alternative pathways are created because with understanding, bits of information are linked in many ways to other bits of information that has already been consolidated. It is like many pathways have been built to the same bit of information. For example, when we think of “home”, we think of our childhood home, or our own home in adulthood, or that home is associated with safety, or Mum’s cooking and so on. So even if one pathway or link is forgotten, there are other pathways to retrieve that information. The strength of that memory, and its ability to be retrieved, is directly proportional to the number of pathways. This also means that “factlets” or disparate bits of information are less likely to be easily stored in the long-term memory. What all these implies for the student is that he has to seek to reach understanding of what he is learning as far as possible.
However, we know that students today often have to remember lots of factlets. The student therefore has to learn how to store these factlets as quickly as possible into the long-term memory. The way to do so is to create clear pathways that will link with knowledge that is already stored in the brain. This is why memory systems that have been created to help people remember quickly and longer works through a system of links or association. The links are done in a specific way or through a specific path. This path needs to be consciously created and not be left to chance. It becomes easier to remember something when more specific paths are created to that particular piece of information. But note that they are specific paths, not something haphazardly done. To put it simply, to remember and recall something new effectively you need to associate or link that thing with things that you already know well. This linking or association is the basis of all memory systems that has been popularized to improve our memory.
Send an email to me if you want to find out more about effective and successful learning and recall strategies for your children.