How Memory Works

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Memory is one of our favorite psychological processes and neuroscientists are still learning how our memories work and studying strategies to improve and maintain it. A basic breakdown of memory looks like this: an individual encodes or takes in information, stores that information some place in the brain (current research indicates the pre-frontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and the cerebellum are holding houses), and then retrieves it when needed. There are three main types of memory: short term, working memory, and long term memory and then we have subtypes of those including auditory, verbal, nonverbal, visual, and kinesthetic memory. Some of us may find our visual memory is stronger than our auditory memory, so it might be easier to learn and retain new information presented to us visually, rather than verbally. Memory is a very important component to traditional education and learning. Basically, if you have strong memory skills you are very likely to do well at school. Strong performance on memory assessments is highly correlated with academic success at all levels. It would be unusual to find a gifted student that did not shine on the memory components of the cognitive assessment, while students found in need of learning support services may have low scores on the memory components of the cognitive assessments. As with most brain related things, memory is subject to neuroplasticity meaning it can be changed, shaped, improved or damaged. Memory is also an ability that can improve with practice just as a muscle is strengthened when exercise. What damages the memory? Alcohol, smoking, drugs, age, injury, and disease are some well-known offenders. What improves memory? Learning new information, brain games, mindfulness activities, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and sleeping a sufficient amount daily.
What are some tricks that you can use to help yourself and your students to sharpen memory? Repetition, drill and practice exercises, and frequent review– this helps with things like math facts, learning geographic information, and historical facts. Mnemonics, acronyms, abbreviations, songs, and rhymes- this helps with lists of information that phonetically do not have things in common.

Chunking and grouping information– this strategy helped you learn your social security number and phone numbers back in the day.

Use all of your senses– paying attention to how something looks, sounds, tastes, smells and feels helps you to remember it.

Rely on the GPS and Google less- our brains have become lazy because they do not have to work so hard. Try to do pencil and paper math, look for landmarks to find your way, and think through problems before relying on technology to help you.

Use a Memory Palace – this is an imaginary location you visualize in your mind where you can store mnemonic images. It’s like making a mental visual map in your mind of what you need to remember.

Sleep- your brain needs sleep to encode and retrieve information. When you cram for a test the night before and do not sleep, that information will be stored in short term memory only and then be discarded. A great study tip is after an hour of study, try to take a nap, then repeat this cycle for a few days. Make sure you always sleep 8 hours the day before an exam.

Drink Water– Dehydration has been shown to cause memory problems.
Eat more of these– The brain responds to food. The Mediterranean diet, especially fatty fishes, have been linked to strong memories:

  •   plant-based foods, especially green, leafy vegetables and berries
  •   whole grains
  •   legumes
  •   nuts
  •   chicken or turkey
  •   olive oil or coconut oil
  •   herbs and spices (Tumeric)
  •   Coffee and dark chocolate
  •   fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines

Use a Memory Palace – this is an imaginary location you visualize in your mind where you can store mnemonic images. It’s like making a mental visual map in your mind of what you need to remember.

Eat less of these– sugar, fats and processed foods have been linked to impaired memories:

  •   sugar
  •   processed foods
  •   butter
  •   red meat
  •   fried foods
  •   Alcohol
  •   salt
  •   cheese

Be well and exercise that brain! Karah and Suzanne

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