Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Short-Term Memory

Say your Social Security number out loud (preferably where no one else can hear, but that’s another story). Piece of cake, right?

Now, remember how to ride a bike. Not so easy, huh?

This quick exercise is a great introduction to another one of Dr. John Medina’s “Brain Rules”:

Repeat to remember

The point in the above exercise? One does not recall how to ride a bike in the same way one recalls nine numbers in a certain order. The ability to ride a bike seems quite independent from any conscious recollection of the skill. You were consciously aware when you were remembering your Social Security number, but not when riding a bike. Do you need to have conscious awareness in order to experience a memory? Or is there more than one type of memory? No, and yes! Take a look at this video for a quick lesson on your memory.

Other facts:

  • The brain has many types of memory systems. One type follows four stages of processing: encoding, storing, retrieving, and forgetting

  • Information coming into your brain is immediately split into fragments that are sent to different regions of the cortex for storage

  • Most of the events that predict whether something learned also will be remembered occur in the first few seconds of learning. The more elaborately we encode a memory during its initial moments, the stronger it will be

  • You can improve your chances of remembering something if you reproduce the environment in which you first put it into your brain

The human brain can only hold about seven pieces of information for less than 30 seconds! This means, your brain can only handle a 7-digit phone number. If you want to extend the 30 seconds to a few minutes or even an hour or two, you will need to consistently re-expose yourself to the information. Memories are so volatile that you have to repeat to remember.

Improve your memory by elaborately encoding it during its initial moments. Many of us have trouble remembering names. If at a party you need help remembering Mary, it helps to repeat internally more information about her. “Mary is wearing a blue dress and my favorite color is blue.” It may seem counterintuitive at first but study after study shows it improves your memory.

In partnership with the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University, Medina tested this Brain Rule in real classrooms of 3rd graders. They were asked to repeat their multiplication tables in the afternoons. The classrooms in the study did significantly better than the classrooms that did not have the repetition. If brain scientists get together with teachers and do research, we may be able to eliminate need for homework since learning would take place at school, instead of the home.

Probably the most surprising fact in this chapter on memory is best related in a couple of images: which one is the best metaphor for what happens to our brains in the first few seconds of new information?

You might be surprised:

I was!

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