Humans have an extraordinary capability to remember faces, interactions, emotional experiences, and ‘interesting’ facts. Notice the wording-‘interesting’.
However, most of the time, our brain is bombarded with information that is useless and dull-think Calculus and Physics-and it has no other option, but to go into a hibernation mode when we are trying to study. For example, think about college students pulling all-nighters. (First of all, I never understood that. Sleep is such a precious time for me. Why would I want to wake up all night, cramming useless, pathetic facts in my brain that I won’t remember after turning in the exam?) Almost all of these students, either on the exam and most certainly after the exam, will forget 90% of what they tried to cram in their brains.
Obviously, when the topic of a recent Neurology of Learning lecture was on memory, I was thoroughly excited.
The process of consolidation (compiling information from short-term memory and putting it into long-term memory) is what limits our memory to a large extent. The brain does not see all things as memorable and hence, filters out all unimportant information. This is a mechanism that the brain evolved that works efficiently in terms of energy expenditure and usage.
Certain events, however, are stored by the brain relatively easily. Emotional responses associated with a memory will be retained much more likely than the same memory without the emotional cue. Bad memories can be prevented from consolidation by blocking norepinephrine receptors. (Norepinephrine affects our responses to stressful situations by increasing blood pressure, constricting blood vessels, etc.) This hormone also induces better cognitive function. Cognition refers to the process of learning, memory, and judgment. (A better cognitive ability would be an advantage in such situations)
There are interesting cases of people, called savants, that have an extraordinary memory, but limited mental abilities.
A patient called S. had a limitless memory; he could remember a table of 50 numbers horizontally, vertically, as well as diagonally. However, in other times, this ‘limitless’ power proved to be a curse. He was unable to forget bad events and was eventually unable to discern fantasy from reality. This shows us that our brain has the capability to remember an infinite number of things, but it might not be a benefit in the long term.
There are two kinds of memories: declarative (facts) and non-declarative (perceptual and motor skills). A patient called H.M. had recurrent seizures that could not be fixed by medications alone. Doctors decided to remove his temporal lobes. His case gave an insight into the parts of the brain responsible for consolidation of memories.
The hippocampus (located within the temporal lobe) is responsible for the conversion of short-term memory into long-term memory, which affects our ability to recall information.
Following are a few tips that will help you with memory retention in the long-term (courtesy of the Professor):
-Right after class, write down the whole lecture by yourself. Then, look over the notes you took in class.
-Repetition. Look over the notes every couple of days.
-Get emotional. Memories linked to emotional events are retained much more easily than other non-emotionally associated events/facts. You might want to try associating the concepts with something that you encounter everyday.
-Listen to ‘Sonata for 2 pianos in D major K.448” by Mozart while on the way to the exam. (The only musical piece that has been shown to help with cognitive improvement). The research was done at University of California, Irvine and an excerpt from the paper can be found here (courtesy of the guy/gal who uploaded the video).