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SCIENTIFIC BACKGROUND


There are two types of memory that are important for learning, the working memory and the long-term memory. When we learn, we want to store new knowledge in the long-term memory, but to do so we need to get the knowledge through the limited working memory. Keeping the new knowledge in the working memory long enough to store it is often a challenge, particularly in noisy environments. The working memory consists of two parts, one for pictures and one for verbal information (used e.g. for keeping numbers and other abstract information in mind). If the verbal working memory buffer is full or distracted – as it often is in today’s world - it may seem impossible to concentrate on learning abstract facts. However, using pictures often means better working memory utilization, as you may also tap into the picture working memory buffer.

Long-term memory consists of connections between nerve cells, widely spread throughout the brain. Memories are differently strongly encoded. A strongly encoded memory consists of more connections, a “denser net”, that makes it easier to recall. Here, there is a large difference between abstract concept and pictures. An abstract concept is typically stored as a “sparse net”, as you do not have that many associations to it. For example, you are likely to have many more associations to a pear (you know how it looks, feels and tastes, and you may have some personal story connected to pears) than to the number 18 (in Mappia’s “picture alphabet for numbers”, the number 18 is represented by a pear). This is the reason why pictures are so much easier to remember than abstract information.

Typically, it is very difficult to remember new information in areas where we have no previous knowledge. This is because the brain only stores knowledge it expects to be useful. If we come across a new piece of information that is not possible to connect to an existing memory, chances are that the brain will deem the new information as useless. Therefore, when we want to learn it is important to actively create a context that the new knowledge can be attached to. It has been shown to be particularly efficient to create contexts based on position, as the hippocampus (also known as the brain’s librarian) is based on a sort of “inner GPS” system.

Memories are not created once and for all, but need to be recalled several times. If you recall your new memories often enough, they will become automatized, meaning that they can be recalled quickly and without effort. Having automatized knowledge is important, as it frees up capacity in the working memory for problem solving and creativity. To automate knowledge it is important to repeat new knowledge in a structured way. Often we tend to rehearse a bit randomly, which can result in forgetting and having to start over. Research show that the most efficient way it to recall new knowledge over a long period of time (more often in the beginning), but that it is enough to briefly revisit the knowledge. This is referred to as the spacing effect. 

References:

  • Baddeley, A. D., Andrade, J. (2000) Working memory and the vividness of imagery. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129, 126-145. doi:10.1037/0096-3445.129.1.126
  • McDaniel, Mark A.; Einstein, Gilles O. (1986) Bizarre imagery as an effective memory aid: The importance of distinctiveness. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol 12(1), Jan 1986, 54-65
  • Eichenbaum, H (2000) A cortical-hippocampal system for declarative memory. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 1, 41-50
  • Wiklund-Hörnqvist, Carola (2014) Brain-based teaching: behavioral and neuro-cognitive evidence for the power of test-enhanced learning, doctoral thesis Umeå University, ISBN: 978-91-7601-171-3, electronic version available at http://umu.diva-portal.org/

LEARN MORE

  •        Working memory consists of two larger memory buffers, one visio-spatial (objects and positions) and one verbal (auditory information). The two buffers are independent, which means that we can improve our working memory by taking advantage of both buffers. (Gluck, Mercado & Myers: Learning and memory, p. 370)
    •       Children with dyslexia have less activity in the brain’s language center than other children, but higher activity in regions associated with working memory (PFC, prefrontal cortex). This has been interpreted as the working memory trying to compensate for dysfunction in the language center. (Alloway & Alloway: Understanding Working Memory, p. 31-32)
    •       The depth-of-processing effect shows that the more the brain work to store new memories, the better the information is stored. Studies have shown that the brain works harder to store pictures than words, and that pictures generally are easier to remember than words. (Gluck, Mercado & Myers: Learning and memory, p. 268-269)
    •       The hippocampus contains ”place cells” that create an inner map of the space around us (Nobel prize in medicine 2014 Moser & O’Keefe)
    •       The hippocampus connects memories with the time and place where the memory was first stored (Gluck, Mercado & Myers: Learning and memory, p. 287)
    •       A well known memory technique is to distribute items to be remembered in different spatial positions in e.g. a house, and recall them by ”walking through” the rooms of the house (Foer: Moowalk med Einstein)
    •       By automating basic knowledge we have more capacity left to problem solving and creative thinking (Kahneman: Thinking fast and slow)
    •       To automate efficiently, the information must be recalled several times over a longer period of time (Wikipedia: spacing effect)