Visual and spacial memory combine to form a brain strength for humans. We can go to a home for the first time and recall details even weeks later with thousands of data points. If we are a teenager, we can sniff out booze and psychoactive prescription medicine in minutes. So, it makes sense to try and tap into this amazing ancient skill we evolved through eons of wandering through forests and jungles.
Images Aid Memory
Tap into the visual system use an image to associate with a concept. Humans did not evolve to remember phone numbers and abstract concepts. We have incredible spatial and visual systems in our brains to help us recall locations of food, water and shelter. By associating an image with an idea, we can tap into the vast right brain visual centers. Think of funny images that evoke the thing you are trying to recall, or that work like mnemonic devices.
Focusing on a memory brings it into working memory. To move something new, however, into long term memory from working memory requires two things to happen. You need to make the thing memorable - chunk it - use visuals and context.
And you have to Repeat - repetition makes permanent. Even better, repeat over several days in small pieces. Writing and saying seem to help with retention also. Writing seems to encode things more effectively in your brain. It also helps to draw pictures with these items to associate a visual with the idea. You also want to say these things out loud to create ‘auditory hooks’ and associate sound with the idea. Try to recall the card, and then if successful, move onto the next card. If you are stumbling, revisit the card. Lastly, when revisiting cards, shuffle the deck to promote ‘interleaving’ so we don’t simply recall the item in the context of a sequence but the thing itself. Increase the spacing between repetitions over several days. Lastly, be sure to do some learning before bed so our unconscious mind can mull it over.
Pro Tip learn people’s names by trying to retrieve the name from memory over increasing time intervals
Long Term Memory
The hippocampus is critical to forming long term memories. A famous patient HM had both hippocampuses removed and lost the ability to form new long term memories. Memories are living, breathing parts of the brain. Simply recalling a memory causes the memory itself to changes - this is a process called reconsolidation. We can even implant false memories in people, especially impressionable kids, through suggestion and imaging.
New memories are formed using the hippocampus, and then stored in the cortex. This process is called memory consolidation. It can take years to solidify memories.
The consolidation process involves first the brain taking a chunk (state) from active working memory to long term memory by modifying the dendrites of neurons. Once encoded, these memories can be dormant for a long time. When we reactivate the memory, we are taking the chunk and moving it to working memory. The old memory is actually changed when we do this. Memories become intertwined as new connections between brain cells are made, and old memories as well as new memories change. We also perform reconsolidation while we sleep. This is why cramming the night before is not a good strategy for learning.
Glial cells are brain support cells, and astrocytes are a type of glial cell. They happen to be the most common glial cell in the human brain. They provide nutrients to neurons, maintain extra-cellular ion balance, and repair other cells following injury. Astrocyte cells have long arms that wrap around neurons providing a loving embrace where they feed, fix, and ion-balance the brain cells.
Experiments have shown that human astrocyte cells, when placed in mice, improve mice learning times. So a fourth feature of astrocytes seem to be some sort of relationship to learning ability. Also, when Einstein donated his brain to science post-mortem, it was found that he seemed to have more astrocytes than an average brain.
The Memory Palace
Create groups to remember things, and tie these things to images. So, for example, when needing to remember a number, associate digits with meaningful things from life, history, or feelings. Mnemonic devices are also incredibly helpful - we can take a collection of things and using the first letter of each make a song, rhyme or phrase that sticks with us.
The Memory Palace technique ties a visual such as an image, map or layout that can serve as a notepad to group unrelated items. Imagine, say, items you need for a shopping list posted up in your childhood home, so you have a jarring visual of a giant gallon of milk jug on your couch, eggs on your ottoman, and so on. This inserts the things you want to remember into a scene you remember well using your built-in awesome visual memory. With practice, you can measure about 95% of a 40-50 item list. Memory then becomes a creative activity, and build more hooks between chunks. As a side benefit we are also becoming more creative as we build evocative images when we try to get better at this. It taps into our oft-buried creativity we put aside when we were kids.
Summing it up
Humans have two memory systems - working memory and long term memory. RAM and ROM. We need to spend time to build connections into long term memory with repetition over time. Human working memory (RAM) only has 4 slots. We can compact ideas in working memory, however, freeing up resources. We also have an amazing visual memory system where we can associate sensory perceptions with memories to learn things faster. Grouping concepts together into meaningful, creative groups - whether using mnemonic devices, the memory palace technique involving visuals that we create and associate with things we already know, abbreviations, rhymes or funny images - are shown to vastly improve learning and memorization.
- Be sure to start to study early and perform consistently over time
- Interleaving - randomizing questions and mixing up your practice - is vastly more effective for learning
- Make tasks lists at night
- Keep a planner to track your project progress
- Watch your procrastination cues and pick distraction-free environments
- Visual images associated with things you want to remember can help with learning speed and retention
- Handwriting seems to better encode topics we are trying to learn
- Flashcards also seem to make it easier to learn and by increasing spacing between self-tests and mixing up the cards we can more deeply encode the items