Science of Learning: Storage Wars

Did you know most of what we understand about how we remember things comes from someone who had no memory? Fifty-five years of study on “HM,” a man whose hippocampus was removed to help fight his debilitating seizures, provided invaluable insight into how our brains digest memories and store them for later use. Ironic, isn’t it?

We learned that keeping a memory around is actually quite the involved process.

Working Memory

Deeply involved with attention and encoding, working memory keeps your mind on its toes throughout the day. Nilsson describes this mind space as “a mix of thoughts prompted by our environment and our long term memory.” Referred to as our “mental blackboard” for quick thoughts and ideas by Stanford, the working memory is one of the most important mental faculties we have. By connecting old memories to new information, we can thank our working memory for most of the functional learning we accomplish.

In consolidation [into long-term memory] the brain reorganizes and stabilizes the memory traces… the brain replays or rehearses the learning, giving it meaning, filling in blank spots, and making connections. – Make it Stick

Short-Term Memory

While debate has raged about just where the line between short-term and working memory lies, short-term memory functions more as a snapshot of something that we need to remember:

  • Phone numbers are stored here between the time they are read to when you type them into the keypad.
  • You use this for addresses and directions to your new friend’s home.
  • You reserve this for the special way you have to twist your gym lock to get it to actually open once you dial in the correct combination.

A famous study from psychologist George Miller states that our short-term memory revolves around the “magical number seven plus or minus two,” meaning you cannot store any more than nine pieces of information in the short term. So how do you combat this? By providing context with presented information to make a smoother transition into long-term memory. Building parallel lessons that both present the information and explain its application can add more weight to memory traces to start building toward long-term.

Building for the Long Term

Peter Nilsson’s analogy of our mind’s associative nature is spot on.

Science of Storage1

In his example, our long-term memory is a desert, with new knowledge and experiences running through it like water. Different channels branch off as life’s experiences become new to us, but things we’ve seen before etch the main channels deeper as more water passes through them. Over time, these channels become permanent, feeding knowledge and experiences to newer branches as they come.

The same process happens in our brains as we activate memory traces over and over again. These mental pathways provide the basis of our long-term memory: an expansive network of experiences and knowledge flowing into and out of storage. Association with prior knowledge becomes easier as we create more connections. This metaphor shows the importance of building diverse and varied information around a topic.

Learning about something from different angles will support building the strength of the original topic. For example, while you need primary lessons to drive a car, follow-up instruction during rain or snow can explain why leaving plenty of stopping space is a good idea. Likewise, courses and topics within Lessonly are great tools to group supporting information and enhance learning retention. Teaching not just how, but why something works is invaluable.

Should You Sleep on it?

Several studies point out that our brains use sleep as valuable time to cement memories into long-term. The hippocampus (the part of the brain that HM had removed) seems to file through the memories we accumulate in a day and then go to work making those connections stronger and more permanent. Neurological sleep patterns even suggest our brains replay memories past six hours of sleep. Your teachers weren’t lying when they said a good night’s rest is great for tomorrow’s exam.

Finally, we cover retrieval. Recall of information is the most integral part of the learning process, so don’t miss it.

Science of Learning: Decoding the Encoding Process
Science of Learning: Repeated Retrieval Yields Retention

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