Saturday, May 25, 2013

Memorization Is Not a Dirty Word


School is ending for the year, and students surely welcome the break. But they will do well to think on how they learn to learn so that next Fall they can be more successful with less effort. Interesting how that reminds me of my e-book for students, Better Grades, Less Effort.

In my experience with students, both the college students I teach and the secondary students that teachers tell me about, the biggest weakness students have is that they either try to remember school material by rote memorization or have no strategy at all, relying on some kind of magical mental osmosis.

 Even among students who rely on rote memory, they generally lack much of a strategy for memorizing, relying on varying degrees of casual “looking over” the instructional material until they think they can remember it. Experiments show that students routinely over-estimate how much they remember and under-estimate the value of further study. Moreover, many educators at all levels have disdain for memorization, stating that we should focus education on teaching students to think and solve problems, as if you can think and solve problems without knowing anything. Too many teachers regard memorizing as old-fashioned and even destructive of enlightenment.

Disdain for memorization is a relatively new phenomenon in education. In ancient times, people took great pains and pride in memorizing huge quantities of information. The advent of printing greatly reduced the need to memorize history and cultural mores. In modern times, we have the Internet, where you can just Google what you need to know. So who needs to get brain-strain trying to remember things?

Now we have a book by Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, where he argues that there are no lasting facts. They all have a half life, that is, the number of years it takes to falsify half of what you think are facts. He argues that new “facts” are made all the time, often replacing what we had previously thought were facts. He argues we should just stop memorizing and look up whatever current facts we need on the Internet. But if there are no lasting facts, how are those you find on Google any more valid than those you memorize and can deploy in real time.

There are some serious errors in Arbesman’s position.

1.      Many facts are immutable; that is, they don’t have a half-life. Events in history did actually occur, and while revisionist writers of school history textbooks may change the reporting of those events, the facts remain true. Nixon covered up Watergate, Obama obfuscated Benghazi. The fact of DNA as a basis for heredity is not likely to change.
2.      Many facts that do change will not change in a given person’s lifetime and thus will be useful in daily living.
3.      The Internet is flooded with error, propaganda, and un-vetted assertions.
4.      You don’t always have Internet access.
5.      In many situations, it is not practical to look up what you need. Ever try to read or speak a foreign language where you have to look up most of the words? Ever try to use computer software where you have to repeatedly refer to the instruction manual?
6.      Expertise in any field of endeavor requires a great deal of memorized “facts.” And if you want to succeed in life, it pays to be an expert.

I can easily make a strong case for memorization, especially for schools. Here is a list supporting the importance of memorizing:

1.      Memorized information is always with you, even when you lack the time or access to sources where you could look it up.
2.      We think and solve problems with what is in working memory, which in turn is memory of currently available information or recall of previously memorized  information. The process of thinking is like streaming video on the Internet: information flows in as short frames onto the virtual scratch pad of working memory, successively replaced by new chunks of information from real-time or recalled memory. Numerous studies show that the amount of information you can hold in working memory is tightly correlated with IQ and problem-solving ability.


We think by shuttling small batches of information as we experience it or from memory onto a  virtual  scratchpad called working memory. These batches are shuttled  sequentially into our  processing networks ("thought engine"). How well we think depends on what is on the scratch pad. From Klemm, 2011. Atoms of Mind, Springer.


3.      Memorization provides exercise for the mind. This is the reason schools used to require students to memorize poems, Bible verses, famous speeches, etc. The true advantage of such exercise is that generates mental industriousness. Any teacher will tell you that many students today are mentally lazy. Memorization also trains the mind to pay attention and focus intensely. Such skill also seems to be lacking in many youngsters, which is most obvious in the growing number of kids diagnosed with ADHD.
4.      Memorization trains the brain to develop learning and memory schemas that facilitate future learning. Learning schemas develop as you acquire competence in an area—call it skill A. Now, when you need to learn a new and related skill, B, you mind says to itself, “I don’t know how to do B. But I do know how to do A, and some of that can be applied to learning B.” Memory schemas are memorized frames of reference and association, where having memorized fact A, you have an association handle for memorizing fact B.
5.      If you learn strategies for memorization, as opposed to the rote memory approach of looking information over repeatedly, you accelerate the ease, speed, and reliability of learning new things.

Bottom line: the more you know, the more you can know!

Regardless of where you stand on the importance of memory, most people believe that learning is a good thing. But what good is learning if you don’t remember it?

If you are convinced that you or your loved ones could benefit from better memory, many ways to do it are explained in my books, Better Grades, Less Effort (e-book for students) and Memory Power 101 (paperback from SkyhorsePublishing.com). 


Thursday, May 09, 2013

New Discoveries on Optimizing Memory Formation


As each of us goes through life, we remember a little and forget a lot. The stockpile of what we remember contributes greatly to define us and our place in the world. Thus, it is important to remember and optimize the processes that make that possible.

People who compete in memory contests (“memory athletes”) have long known the value of associational cues (see my Memory Power 101 book). Neuroscientists have known for a long time about memory consolidation (converting short-term memory to long-term form) and the value of associational cues. But now, important new understanding is arising from a research lab at Northwestern that links cueing to “re-consolidation” and reveals new possibilities for optimizing long-term memory formation.

The underlying research approach is based on such well-established memory principles as:
  1. When information is first acquired, it is tagged for its potential importance or value.
  2. Such tagging is influenced by multiple factors such as repetition, attention, emotion, or purpose.
  3. Valuable memories get preferentially rehearsed, either through conscious will or by covert (implicit) brain processes.
  4. Rehearsal episodes reactive the memory and enhance long-term remembering because each re-consolidation episode builds on prior ones and strengthens the neural circuits that store the memory.
  5. Effectiveness of recall during rehearsal is promoted by use of relevant cues, that is, information that was associated with the original learning material.
  6. Such cues are effective, even when delivered during sleep.[1]

The study involved 60 people in their early 20s, screened for good memory ability.[2] All subjects participated in a four-hour learning period beginning in late morning. The learning consisted of 72 images placed in specific locations on a tile-like screen and presented one at a time. As each image appeared a corresponding sound was associated, intended to serve as a learning cue. For example, a dog picture would be associated with barking, cat with meow sound, etc. To create a value bias, each image had a superimposed number representing how important it was to remember this item and its location upon later testing. Subjects were given financial reward for how well they remembered, and thus remembering high-value images was a priority. Half of the images had high value assignments, while the rest had low values.

 Subjects were assigned to four groups:  
  1. Groups 1 and 2 were tested to see how well they could remember where each object had appeared during the learning phase. They then took a 90 min nap while their EEGs were recorded. Half of these subjects heard white noise while the other have was presented the original sound cues of low-value images during non-REM sleep at a level that did not cause awakening. At the end of the nap, recall was again tested.
  2. The procedure in two other groups was similar except that these subjects did not nap. One of these groups watched a movie during the 90 minutes after the learning session, while the other group listed to the low-value sound cues while performing a working memory task.

Not surprisingly, the studies revealed that high-value images were remembered better, irrespective of whether or not a nap was taken. The practical point is that we remember better the things we value and find to have positive reward value. This reminds me of the sage saying that T. Boone Pickens repeated from his basketball coach, who told players after each game: “Don’t dwell on your mistakes. Think about what you did right and do more of that!”

In the study, half of the low-value associations were rescued by cueing during wakefulness and all of them were rescued by cueing during sleep, even though only half of the images were cued. Notably, the best effects occurred during the deepest stage of sleep. No explanation was given to explain the sleep benefit, but I suspect it is because the sleeping brain is not distracting itself with irrelevant thoughts. This is consistent with the finding that low-value memories were not rescued well during REM sleep, when the brain is busily engaged in dreaming. The REM-sleep finding is at variance with other studies that reported a memory consolidating benefit of REM sleep. Apparently, the test conditions make a difference and more research is needed here.

Low-value associations were preferentially forgotten in the group that was not allowed to nap. This likely signifies that a brain busily engaged with other thoughts is less able to selectively consolidate memories, and only high-value items are likely to survive. This accords with the long-held theory that distractions and multi-tasking interfere with memory consolidation.

In summary, memory optimization would seem to require one to:

1.    Create associations that can serve as memory cues.
2.    Place a high value on the cues and their targets.
3.    Repeatedly present the cues and replay the initial information. When awake, present the cues in self-test mode. When asleep, even better results would obtain if cues were presented at a level that does not cause awakening during the early night sleep when sleep is deepest and there is little dreaming.


1. Antony, J. W, Gobel, E. W., O’Hare, J., K., Reber, P. J., and Paller, K. A. (2012). Cued memory reactivation during sleep influences skill learning. Nat. Neurosci. 15: 1114:1116. Rudoy, J. D., Voss, J. L., Westerberg, C. E., Paller, K. A. (2009). Strengthening individual memories by reactivating them during sleep. Science. 326: 1079.
2. Oudiette, D., Antony, J. W., Creery, J. D., and Paller, K. A. (2013) The role of memory reactivation during wakefulness and sleep in determining which memories endure. J. Neurosci. 33(15): 6672-6678.

Don't forget to check my memory e-book, Better Grades, Less Effort, 
for only $2.99 at Smashwords.com.


Friday, May 03, 2013

10 Ways to Make Memory Rehab Work


Physical exercise can rehabilitate bodies that have grown soft and flabby. Can mental exercise rehabilitate brains that have deteriorated because of disease or age? Maybe.
A published scholarly review has examined the research literature on this issue and arrived at several useful conclusions:

1.      Focus, Reduce Distractions. The two common causes of forgetting, in both normal people and those with impaired memory, are a) failure to register new information effectively, and b) interference from conflicting sensations and thoughts.
2.      Customize the Rehabilitation Needed. Rehab need to take into account the type of memory therapy and the cause and severity of the impaired memory capability.
3.      Learn in Small, Frequently Repeated Chunks. New information has to be re-packaged for memory-impaired people so that it is in simple, concrete form, in small chunks, and repeated frequently — with patients required to re-state the information and make explicit associations with what they already know. (Notice how this sounds like the way one needs to teach young children).
4.      Practice Attentiveness. Attentiveness to new information can be enhanced by self-cueing, wherein patients remind themselves to be more attentive at crucial moments. This can even be done by creating a conditioned reflex in which a cue signal conditions greater attentiveness. (Notice how this sounds like how you “clicker” train dogs).
5.      Uses Mnemonics. Mnemonic tips and tricks can help. This includes using acronyms, rhymes, stories, and constructing mental images.
6.      Find Ways to Compensate. Even in patients with severe impairments, some aspects of memory, such as subliminal or implicit memory, may have been spared and can be exploited to compensate for the lost ability.
7.      Spread Rehearsals Over Time. Memory rehearsal is more effective if it is spread out over time rather than bunched into a few closely spaced sessions.
8.      Manipulate the Cues. Be more aware of cues you are using. A “vanishing clues” approach can help. For example, in a rehearsal session, cued retrieval might begin with cueing the first three letters of a target word, then repeating later with two, then  one, and eventually no letter cues.
9.      Minimize Error, Lest you Learn the Errors. Trial-and-error learning is generally less effective than learning conditions that minimize error, because error responses can get stored as memories that compete with the right answers. In short, it is better to not know than to generate wrong answers.
10.  Use Memory Crutches. Using external memory aids (sticky notes, wall charts, notebooks, etc.) should help, bearing in mind, however, that using such aids may themselves be a memory task. It is like having a schedule calendar and forgetting to check the calendar. Smart phones and radio paging devices (“NeuroPage”) can be especially helpful because they remind the patient when to check on the stored information. In some patients, repeated use of such aids develops a habit for target tasks and these may even generalize to certain non-target tasks.

These ten approaches are some of the same approaches that work especially well in people with normal memory capabilities. To make them work in patients with impaired memory just takes more effort, patience, and time.

Source: Ptak, R., Van der Linden, M., and Schneider, A. 2010. Cognitive rehabilitation of episodic memory disorders: from theory to practice. Frontiers in Human Research. 4 (57): 1-11. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2010.00057.