4 ways to hack your memory

LISA GENOVA: Okay, let’s give some tips on studying. Remembering what you need to know for a test or a presentation. One way to better remember this information has to do with self-testing. I can hammer and hammer the information into my brain, and I might remember it, or I can flip it and also try to retrieve the information as I’m learning it. Because here’s what happens, if I’m trying to consolidate something into memory, and I’m only putting the information in, I’m traveling one way on the neurons. If I then try to recall the information, I’m pulling the information out. Now I’m going the other way. This bi-directional highway of information in the memory really helps strengthen that circuit far more than just passively reading the information. So this is like flash cards. Instead of just reading the list of vocabulary words over and over again, read the word and see if you can come up with the answer. Flip it over. You’ll learn faster and better that way. When you’re studying, you want to space out the studying rather than cramming it all together. So if you have seven hours to study for the exam that’s in one week, do one hour a day, rather than all seven hours the night before.

Context also matters. It turns out that memories are most robustly and confidently retrieved if the context of retrieval matches the context when we formed the memory in the first place. So what does that mean? If I’m studying for a test and I’m listening to Mozart while eating Sour Patch gummy bears, I’ve got a lavender scented candle, and I’m drinking mocha frappuccinos. I am best served to recall that information on the test day if I’m doing those same things. The context will match what was available when I was learning it, and can serve as one of the cues to trigger the neural circuit. So am I caffeinated while I learn something? Am I depressed while I’m learning something? Am I tired while I’m learning something? You want to match the conditions that were available while you were learning something, when you want to retrieve it. That will give you the best opportunity to recall it. So when you’re studying for a test, or for a presentation that you have to give, the kind of memory that you’re trying to create and then retrieve is semantic memory. This is the memory for facts and information, the stuff you know. And stress will have an impact on your ability to both form those memories and retrieve them. So a certain amount of stress is good for both situations, for getting the memory into your brain and retrieving it out. But too much will put you in a state of overwhelm.

So have you ever studied for an exam and you know the information cold and you’ve got it- and then you go in for the test, but you’re really stressed because you really want to get an A and you’re super nervous , and you choke. You can’t remember what you know. You can’t retrieve the information. So a certain amount is great and optimal for remembering, but too much is gonna put you in overwhelm, and cause you to draw a blank. We can also take what we know about what our brain is really good at with respect to memory and help it. So we can add associations that are meaningful, emotional, surprising, new. We can repeat things, we can rehearse what we want to know. We can write things down and we will better remember what we might’ve forgotten if we hadn’t helped it. So if you’re trying to memorize information for a test, or a presentation, or a speech, there are lots of ways to optimize getting that information into your brain and then being able to retrieve it on demand.

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