The Memory: 1

I've been lecturing on memory recently. It's a great topic because you can apply the results of research to your own memory and studying.

First, if there's anything the research tells us, it's that memory isn't one thing. As I've talked about before, we can remember specific memories (called verbatim traces), but we can also store more general information related to the memory (called gist).

This gives us an important clue about memory: it's not just about the memory--it's also about things related to the memory. It suggests that memories in our heads are very different from those in a computer. In a computer, each memory occupies a lonely little memory location on a chip--whichever one is available. In our heads, in contrast, incoming memories look for a good place to land. They want to stick to things that they are similar to. This is why it's hard to remember things if they don't make sense to you: the memories have nowhere to land.

Second, there's a neat effect known as context-dependent memory. It's the fact that where you are will influence your ability to remember things you learned in that location. If you come to class, you'll learn all kinds of neat psychology-flavoured bits (at least, if you're in my class you will). The words I say and the words that appear on the big screen do no exist apart from their context; rather, they are a part of the context (clever, innit? ;-) This is good reason to come to class--especially if the exam is held in the classroom. If you're just mooching the lecture notes off someone else, you're missing that experience. (Real keeners are known to study the textbook in the classroom as well.)

Again, this tells us that memories are more than just random bits that get stuffed into your brain. Yes, they do get stored, but the situation matters. Why? Recent research has used brain scans to analyze the brain while it's learning (or encoding memories) and again when it's remembering (or retrieving memories). The patterns in both cases are remarkably similar. If you learn something in one environment and then try to remember it in another environment, it will be more difficult because the patterns of brain activity (partially produced by your environment) will be a bit different.

So, here are the upshots. First, if you're trying to commit a definition to memory, try to remember an example of that as well. If you want to remember that episodic memories are about your personal life events, think of some significant event from your own life--like the last party you went to (if you can remember it).

Second, go to class. Maybe your final exam isn't in the classroom (although mine are--that's my choice), your midterms are. Wouldn't it be nice to have a bit of a free memory boost when you're writing an exam?

Why aren't you studying?


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