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Here’s What You Need to Know About Remembering, According to Science

By: Shelly Freud

I often find myself walking out of class and immediately forgetting what I had been doing for the last hour. Sometimes I find myself remembering a lyric from an early 2000’s song I haven’t heard in a while, and forgetting what I actually need to remember for, let’s say, a test. Why does this happen?

Scientists have identified several reasons as to why people fail to recall past, and even recent, experiences. The first is that we simply fail to pay attention to it. Although we may believe that we are very attentive to the world around us, we can only pay attention to a small fraction of what we actually see. Think of it as a spotlight where you can only see or think of one thing at any given time.

Dr. Amy Overman, a Psychology professor and researcher at Elon University, explains that attention and memory are intertwined. “You cannot bring things into your memory and to preserve them if you aren’t paying attention in the first place,” she says.

Gwen Ridout, an Elon student studying Psychology, has also learned that attention is the first step to remembering anything. She points out that when she needs to remember something, “I immediately write it down,” she says, to make it a point to herself that, one: she payed attention to it and, two: she should remember it.

When we pay attention to something, the areas in our brain responsible for auditory and visual elements store information in different parts of the brain. When we write things down, the brain creates spatial relations between the physical paper and what we are attending to. Since these spatial relations are stored in a different part of the brain, simultaneously linking verbal and spatial tasks forces it to filter out unnecessary information. This filtration of irrelevant things allows our brains to focus more efficiently- which is why writing your notes down is more effective than typing them out. Pro tip number one: write things down!

The second reason we forget is because information is poorly organized in our brains. Remembering and memory are like a spiderweb: it catches new information, and the more it catches the more it grows; the more it grows the more it can catch. Attention makes sure that things stick to our spiderweb, but if these are unorganized- mosquitos mixed up with bees and lizards- you will never find what you need to find when you need it.

Overmann divulges into the most effective method of organizing our mental spiderweb: memory by association. She describes it as the mechanism in our brains that does the linking, and forms relationships between unrelated pieces of information – such as mixing bees with lizards. How does the brain clean this up? Sleep!

The third reason as to why you can’t remember is that you may not be getting enough sleep. It is painfully common to see Elon students walking around campus with only three hours of sleep in their system. Sleep deprivation leads to the same physiological impairments as drinking alcohol. This means that not sleeping can impede the brain from consolidating.

Consolidation is the transformation of new memories to a more permanent, long-term state. The inability to consolidate and perform high order functions makes it harder for the brain to focus, prioritize, and store information in long-term memory, causing shorter attention spans. Pro tip number two: organize your thoughts with plenty of beauty sleep!

The fourth reason are inefficient study strategies. Overmann and Ridout advise students to, “be strategic about the way you study,” because you do not need to do hours on end. Instead, she suggests using “learning strategies like elaboration, spaced practice,” and retrieval practice.

Elaboration is a method of memory retention by interpreting or decorating information to be remembered, or by relating it to other material that has already been learned. Spaced practice is the method of by which learning is spaced out over time; each section should not exceed more than thirty minutes. Retrieval practice is the process of deliberately recalling information- such as effectively remembering the solution to a math question instead of looking up the answer in the textbook. Pro tip number three: be strategic, and when in doubt, space it out!

Cramming the night before the exam is not good for your hippocampus, a part of the limbic system responsible for memory and motivation. “Your hippocamps wants you to do a little at a time and leave it alone so it can sleep, consolidate, and come back to it the next day,” says Overman.

One can never really know what to attend to or. What we can do is focus on making every day memorable by practicing effective attention strategies to strengthen our memory.

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