No. 4:  The Rule of Memorization

    Hmmm ...  I forgot what I wanted to write for this rule...  

    Oh yeah.  In learning, now and for the rest of your life, you'll rely heavily on your memory.  When you do, it helps to understand some basic memory rules.  [I'm going to oversimplify outrageously in what follows.  Any neurobiologist will cringe.  However, the conclusions about how best to engage your memoy are very well supported.]
    We know that the brain makes internal decisions on how to engage memory for any given information. As the vast amounts of information coming in to your brain comes in, it gets filtered.  Most information gets filtered out, so you never even notice it--voices down the hall, the hum of a motor, gurgles in plumbing, a car in the distance.  What gets through is assigned importance based on your brain's attention to it. Your brain and your attention have limited space, and so most information you notice is not  tagged for long-term memory.  In addition, some things are tagged to be forgotten soon, once they are no longer in use, or else later once you have  recalled them.  That 'importance tag' determines how long you remember something.

Think of three categories of memory:   
(a) Important for the moment.  Keep it briefly and forget it within seconds or minutes.
(b) Important until some event.  Keep it until that event, and then forget it.
(c) Important forever.  Keep it in the best possible permanent memory.

So what determines which information falls into each of these?

(a) Important for the moment.  Keep it briefly and forget it within seconds or minutes.  This is sometimes called immediate memory, and you use it to keep track of what you're doing.  It fails sometimes when you forget what you're doing in the middle.  It's that puzzling sense of, 'Why did I just come to the kitchen?'.  When you're reading a textbook or your notes, and you get to the bottom of the page and realize you can't remember anything on that page, this was the category of memory you were using.  It got you through the page, reading everything in order, but it was tagged for immediate forgetting. You're better off taking a nap than studying this way.  Nothing stays in your head.  Either switch to a more engaging, interesting study method, or take a nap.

(b) Important until some event.  Keep it until that event, and then forget it.
This is the memory you use to remember where you left your phone, your jacket, or parked your car.  You need to remember these things, perhaps for a fairly long time, but once the event happens--you move your car or pick up your phone-- you need to forget it.  If you remembered all those events, you waste valuable memory space and clutter up your recollections of the important things.  When you're cramming for a specific exam, much of what you learn gets this tag.  It may stay there until the exam, if you're good at cramming, but it's likely to be lost immediately thereafter.  This is the familiar feeling of, "I knew that perfectly last week, and now I can't remember any of it".  This kind of memory is probably heavily used whenever YOU believe that the main goal of your studying is to get you through the next exam.  Will it come back to you later in the course, or next year?  Probably not very well. If you really want to remember for the long term, your brain needs to believe that the information is important for the long term.  If, as you study, you're thinking to yourself, "I really need to know this for the exam, I really need to know this for the exam, ..." then that's probably the longest you'll retain it.  

(c) Important forever.  Keep it in the best possible permanent memory.
This is the memory you use to remember important events.  Your first big game, a specific holiday, a key moment of understanding with a parent or relative, a first kiss, or some awful rejection.  These are things your brain tags as fundamentally important for some reason, even if it's just of the "I'll never do THAT again" variety.  
     This is also the memory you want to use to build expert knowledge.  This is where you want facts, concepts, and techniques that will matter to you your whole life.  It's also the hardest memory to get into.  Your brain won't accept it unless you BELIEVE fully and deeply that it's important.  There are a lot of ways to do that, but the best is either to be fascinated (or even obsessed) by a topic, or to learn how to be fascinated by a topic.  Obsession with a topic is particularly effective at getting things into this class of memory.  Think of the people you know who can recall specific plays from football games ten years ago, clothes someone wore three years ago, or most of the dialogue from a play or movie they saw only once.  Repetition also works, but it works well ONLY if you believe the topic has importance.  You may have stared at the pattern of bricks on your wall hundreds of times, but you still don't remember it.  You may not even remember if your wall is made of brick.
     To get the best access to this memory, you'll be most effective by trying to make decisions about the important elements of what you need to remember. You'll be most effective if you understand why the material is important in multiple contexts, by thinking about how you might use the information in the future, or how you could have used it in the past.  You'll also be most effective by avoiding boredom while you study.  If you're bored, it's virtually impossible to convince your brain to put something in  long-term memory.  So, find study methods that engage more of your mind and keep you focused and interested.   And beware--stress, desperation, and panic, as when the exam is arriving tomorrow morning, can improve memory, but stress, desperation, and panic tend to be distracting, and you might remember the stress, desperation, and panic as well or better than the material, which isn't helpful at test time.

If you want to keep a memory, go back to it.  Most memories even in longer-term memory are still in the 'use it or lose it'  category.  In my case, I remember course material well ONLY during the semester I'm teaching it.  Even though I believe it is important, the longer I go without teaching or thinking about a subject, the more I lose--until I review it yet again.

Lastly, human brains remodel memories. For all of us, almost certainly, some of what we remember with crystal clarity has in fact been remodeled, changed, and warped.  Memories can get pruned and adjusted.  Studies show that, particularly in children, events that are told and retold with subtle changes (or even large changes) gradually get remodeled to conform to the changes.  This appears to be a mechanism through which people converge on a single shared experience, convince themselves to believe a more attractive personal history, or sometimes even a less attractive personal history.  The evidence on remodeling of memory appears to apply to adults as well.  Some of what you think you know was learned correctly, but has been remodeled incorrectly.  Sorry.  

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Last updated  4/10/2004
College of William and Mary, Department of Biology