How Memory is Stored Inside Our Brains and How to Improve It

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Why do we easily remember some facts but not another?
Why do we remember more what we did on last New Years Eve than what we do 3 days ago?
How do we improve our memory?

Most people with great memories are not really good ‘rememberers’, they are great ‘associators’. Have you seen one of those colored pen advertisements saying that by using those colored pens to make notes, you will remember 70% better? It is not really the color that makes you remember more, it is the association between the words and the color. For example, in a biology note you wrote the word ‘chlorophyll’ in green. Your brain registers both the word and color together through different circuits which end at the same part of the brain. Firing through two circuits makes the signal stronger, which in the end, is stored in the brain better. Like making a dent on a piece of steel, hammering with both hands creates a deeper dent compared to using just one hand. So is using 2 of your brain circuits, like in this case the language circuit (for the word chlorophyll) and color recognition circuit (for the color green). The more circuits are fired, the deeper the memory is embedded in our brains.

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Now that is only the association of language (the words) and color. It does not have to be only 2 circuits. The more circuits are fired together, the deeper the memory is embedded. There are unlimited other association, like associating the information with shape by drawing, with sound by reading out loud, or, most profoundly, is by associating it with emotion. Do you remember the details of the dullest day of your life? The days where you are neither really happy nor sad, you just have nothing to do. All you do is stay on your bed or looking out the window watching the day pass by?

Chances are you would not. But if I ask you to remember the happiest or the saddest day of your life, I believe you can come up with more details. Like the people you talked to, the clothes that you wore, and the people you have encountered. Emotion plays an important role in memorization. It is like the heaviest hammer there is. One strike creates a deep, deep dent. One emotion circuit firing makes a deeply embedded memory. We remember our happy days, and also the worst days of our lives because it is associated with our emotions. To take advantage of it, we can remember more when reading the things that interest and excite us. Remember that you remember all the storyline and how the character in the comic book you like ended up? But you cannot remember the storyline of that historical event you consider boring? That is memory and emotion in action.

One way to make remembering fun is by eliciting emotional responses by imagination. For example, if you are required to remember that the main exports of a certain country is coffee, sugarcane and bananas, imagine yourself drinking coffee added with sugar (processed from sugarcane) while eating bananas. That is really weird and somewhat funny is it? Who drinks coffee with bananas? But that, is what stimulates our emotional response, and makes us remember better. I know it takes time to think of those kinds of associations but the effects on memory are profound!

So, like it or not, to pass exam, you either have to like what you read, or keep on repeating them until it creates a deep ‘memory dent’ inside your brain. Oh, I have not explained to you about repetition? Repetition is reading again and again the information that you read. This is really a boring way to memorize, but it works. It is like you repeatedly hammer a piece of steel, the more you hammer it, the deeper the dent is. Luckily, I do have a technique which is much more effective than just reading repeatedly, but takes a little more effort. Here is how. The conventional way of note-writing is like this:

"The heart is a muscular organ found in all animals with a circulatory system (including all vertebrates), that is responsible for pumping blood throughout the blood vessels by repeated, rhythmic contractions"

Man, that is dull, so here is another way of writing:

"The heart is a ________ organ found in all animals with a ________ system (including all _________), that is responsible for pumping _____ throughout the blood vessels by repeated, ___________ contractions"

Is this familiar? It is like "fill in the blanks with the correct answer" in primary school! Anyway, first, you read the full text. Then you make a note like the above. Now, the most important part is you leave out the words that are critical to remember. Like ‘circulatory’ or ‘rhythmic’. It does not make sense to leave out the word ‘the’ or ‘with’ does it? This is not an English prepositions test! The trick is like this, on the next page, you fill in the answers to those blank spots:

muscular
circulatory
vertebrates
blood
rhythmic

So, the next time you read the note, you try to remember what the correct word for the blank spots is. If you cannot remember, halt it, do not turn to the next page! Take a guess! After you have taken guesses of all the answers, then you turn to the next page. If your answer is correct, you will stimulate your emotion of happiness! But, if you got it wrong, do not worry. Because you took the guess instead of just looking at the answer, you in a way telling your brain that "Hey, you are giving out the wrong facts here!". The brain will register the error, and, as a result will make you remember the answer better. Better yet if you gave the wrong answer because you are confusing it with another fact. That mistake will clear up the confusion. As they say, we learn more from our mistakes.

So, by doing this kind of note-writing, you do not have to make the mistakes in the exams. Make the mistakes now, in your room, so that when you enter the exam hall, you have already done enough mistakes to make you a perfect scorer!

Lutfi Fadil Lokman is a medical student at National University of Malaysia. He holds a special interest in the field of neurology where he studies about the human brain, its function, and its correlation to the principles of success in daily life. To read more about the relationship between the brain function and the principles of success, visit his website at: http://lutfi-fadil.blogspot.com/ or view his profile on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/lutfifadil


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