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How Neuroscience can help you Hang on to Knowledge (and your coat)
Walking into a party at someone’s house, one of the first things you would do if you brought one is hang your coat up.
The hooks are there to keep the coats off the floor, but more importantly they are one of the many objects we’ve created to support our memory. If a coat is always hung on a hook we do not need to retain the knowledge of where we put our coat in our short-term (working) memory. This frees us up to keep that interesting/attractive person’s name in our working memory instead, after all you did arrive to the party solo!
Hooks are an important element of storing and later retrieving knowledge. Finding a hook (prior knowledge) to hang your new knowledge on helps us retrieve that knowledge far more easily. Subsequently, when we do retrieve that knowledge our memory traces are strengthened, given further meaning, and the connection to prior knowledge reinforced. That person’s name is now going to be very hard to forget. Even if you do forget their name, if you’re lucky enough to subsequently hear it again you’ll be much more likely to encode it into your memory. Dr Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College in the USA suggests that "forgetting is the friend of learning...it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively.”
Learning knowledge, encoding it, and then retrieving it multiple times helps thicken synapses between the neurons that are firing, which makes our memories stronger, clearer and faster. Keen history buffs are better able to retain the knowledge of when something happened because they hang that knowledge onto hooks of other connected knowledge, forming a web of understanding concerning every new piece of knowledge they learn. However, it’s no good continuously recalling a piece of knowledge every few minutes; if we let our memories fade so we may have forgotten the knowledge, and retrieve it at this point, we improve our ability to recall it further in the future according to psychology researcher and author Henry Roediger III. This technique is called spaced repetition: recalling knowledge after it has left our working memory.
Varying the knowledge we acquire or retrieve is also incredibly important, a process called interleaving. Dr Nate Kornell was lead author of a study that illustrates the importance of interleaving. His team found that adults of varying ages were better able to distinguish the painting styles of 12 unfamiliar artists after viewing a variety of works from all 12 artists. Common intuition would assume that a better way forward might have been to view multiple works from one artist to “get” their style, before moving on to the next artist. Kornell suggests that “what seems to be happening in this case is that the brain is picking up deeper patterns when seeing assortments of paintings; it’s picking up what’s similar and what’s different about them”. At first it is undoubtedly hard to switch between paintings and styles, but over time the difficult nature of switching and retrieving knowledge about them pays off.
For sustained memory development it is a case of little and often as Dr Judy Willis, a neurologist suggests: “neurotransmitters, brain transport proteins, needed for memory construction and attention are depleted after as little as 10 minutes of doing the same activity”. Syn-naps are brain-breaks where you change the learning activity to let your brain’s chemicals replenish; the syn-naps can be stretching, walking, or making a drink. After just a few minutes, your refreshed brain will be ready for new memory storage.
Research in this field continues moving apace, but there is consensus and has been for some time, on why we don’t forget where our coat is but do forget that person’s name.
I still remember the name of my first crush, but I can’t remember what she looked like. I encoded her name into my memory because of the places we met (think school playground) and the emotions I felt (think wow), however, so many thousands of people I’ve met since have blurred the image of her. Memory is a funny thing though, it’s there somewhere, and there is a chance that if I bumped into her tomorrow I’d recognise her. My party days are over, but my focus on making stronger memories and networks of knowledge has only just begun.
Chris Webbe is Programme Director of Feed Your Elephant, a company committed to transforming knowledge and making learning stick, supporting both the organisation and individual through AI driven app technology.