Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Thinking Is the Best Way to Memorize

People frequently ask me “What’s the best way to improve my memory? (or … my child’s memory? … my elderly parent’s memory?). The answer most commonly given is to use memory aids, that is, mnemonic devices such as associating mental images of new information with images of already learned images that serve as pegs on which to hang new information. I explain these devices in great detail in both of my books, “Memory Power 101” and “Better Grades, Less Effort.”

Mnemonics are essential if you want to become a “memory athlete” and show off prodigious feats of memory. After you have used such mnemonics for a while, some of the benefit persists long after you quit using such mnemonics because the brain has been trained to be more facile and imaginative in making associations.

But for real-world practicality, it is hard to beat the usefulness of thinking about what you are trying to remember. Thinking unifies the essential elements of learning, which I view as follows:

Knowledge Understanding Creative Insight

When people try to acquire knowledge, they of course must remember it, which they usually attempt by mentally repeating it again and again. This rote process is the least effective way to remember. When you think about what you are trying to remember, your efforts to understand it actually constitute rehearsal in meaningful ways. Attempts to understand include associating and cross checking the new with your understanding of what you already know, thinking about what else might be relevant, reflecting on the merits of the new information, and self-examination of your level of understanding. Then, as understanding is gained, you become poised for creative insight, making application of the new information for your own needs and purposes. In the process, you might even think of things about the new information that others have not discerned. This process automatically creates mental associations that not only cement the new information in memory but also integrate it with all the things you already know as well as perhaps even generating ideas that nobody else has thought of.

The biological basis behind this thinking process of memory rehearsal is now being confirmed. The original basis of the idea comes from suggestion some 20 years ago that multiple areas of brain participate in formation of memory.[1] Thinking engages multiple areas of brain and, when performed on what you are trying to remember, strengthens the memory representation in the brain areas that are creating the engram.

Some recent support for multiple-area formation of memory includes a recent brain-scan study of male and female college students during consolidation of a recent fear-induced experience revealed increased activity in multiple brain areas (amygdala, parahippocampus, insula, thalamus, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex) during a resting state lasting 10 minutes immediately after the conditioning.[2] “Rest” occurred immediately after responding to the fear-inducing stimulus and probably involved a process of reflection on the learning task or an equivalent subconscious process.

Decreased activity occurred in the striatum (caudate, putamen). This decrease may have occurred because this area of brain includes the positive reinforcement (reward) system, and fear conditioning is aversive, not rewarding.

I should add that the extensiveness of brain areas participating in thinking and its associated memory consolidation was surely under-estimated. MRI brain scans measure metabolism, which is not a direct index of the nerve impulse signaling required for processing learning events.

[1] Squire, L. R. (1992) Declarative and non-declarative memory: multiple brain systems supporting learning and memory. J. Cognitive Neuroscience. 4 (3):232-243 Posted Online December 13, 2007.(doi:10.1162/jocn.1992.4.3.232)
[2] Feng, T., Feng. P., and Chen, Z. (2013). Altered resting-state brain activity at functional MRI during automatic memory consolidation of fear conditioning. Brain Res. 2013 Jul 26;1523:59-67. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2013.05.039

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