So, you’ve got a test coming up and you’re convinced there’s no way you’re going to be able get smarter and remember everything? It seems an overwhelming feat? You’re allocating a lot of time to the task of studying, but the facts aren’t sinking in all that well? Worry no more! I’ve got your back. Today we’re going to be looking at the mystery of memory. We’ll look at how to set up your environment to help – not hinder – and mind tricks you can use to improve memory and recall all that stuff you’ve somehow got to squeeze between your ears. The great thing is, this isn’t limited to studying for a test either. You can use these mind tricks for remembering how to do an array of useful things. Win at Trivial Pursuit, wow your boss in a big meeting, or familiarize yourself with a new city on your travels. Knowledge is power, after all.
Let’s begin by looking at what happens in the brain when we make a memory. A series of famous studies were conducted in the 1920’s by Karl Lashley, a determined behavioral psychologist. He experimented with rats in order to try to locate which part of the brain stored memories. What he found was much more complex. Memories are actually dispersed throughout our brains; not kept in any one area. We know that the hippocampus is the part of the brain essential in memory formation. But, over time, these memories are transferred to our frontal lobes. It seems that depending on the age of the memory, we recall from different parts of the brain.
We also know that memories are stronger if we make associations with one or more of the five senses. The strongest of these being our sense of smell. Smells pass through what is known as the olfactory bulb, a neural structure in our forebrain. This has a strong connection to the hippocampus. We make memories with other sensory connections too, but none are as strong as the of smell.
The trick to remembering anything is to make a connection with something you already know. It’s really that simple. Below I’ve listed some tips & tricks that will get you going.
- Use Rosemary Essential Oil. When you’re studying, set yourself up with an oil burner or diffuser and surround yourself in the stimulating aroma of rosemary. There’s a compound in rosemary oil known as 1,8-cineole. This causes an increase in the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Boost acetylcholine and you’ll find it easier to create and retain memories.
- Create a Memory Palace. This applies to any amount of information you’ve got to remember but is especially useful for cramming in lots of facts or examples for an essay-style test. Made famous by our beloved Sherlock Holmes, this powerful technique asks that you select a location and embellish it with the facts you need to remember. You want to choose somewhere familiar, so maybe pick your family home, local grocery store, or library. You allocate different facts to different objects in your chosen ‘palace’. For example, let’s say that I’m trying to remember the different stages of photosynthesis. The first stage of photosynthesis is the light-dependent reactions. That’s nice and easy; I walk into my house and I turn on the light. Light-switch, light-dependent reactions. These happen on the thylakoid membrane inside the chloroplast. OK, thylakoid..there’s a toy (toy rhymes with koid) that my cat left for me by the door. Chloroplast, close the door fast! Don’t want the kitty escaping. You get the idea. You build associations between those things you have to remember and you in your location of choice and retain the memories. It doesn’t matter how bizarre they sound out loud. The weirder, the better–the more memorable. Do some research on memory palaces for more tips, though this is a good place to start.
- Build a brain tree. If you’ve got a paper to remember that you’d like to use as an example in an exam, go through and condense each paragraph in the margin. Remember the main point of each paragraph as a branch on a tree. Then, remember the points within the paragraph as smaller branches coming off of them. Similar to a mind palace, you’ll know where everything is on your tree. Try to be as detailed as possible. Is there a swing hanging off one of the branches? Or maybe there’s a cuckoo’s nest on one of them? The more details you can assign, the better you’ll recall the facts later.
- Allocate study time during the afternoon. If you’re trying to cram in some information, consider making it a priority in the afternoon. Several studies have shown that we are better able to recall information that we learned in the afternoon. Some sort of circadian rhythm mystery…
- See it, write it, speak it. Our memory is primarily visual, so it helps to spend time looking at whatever it is you’re trying to learn. Whether that’s a diagram or a flow chart or words on a page. But once you’ve read the material, transcribe it yourself. The process of writing it down forces your brain to make some sense of the information before you’re recording it. As you might imagine, it’s a lot easier to remember something if you understand the principles. Therefore, writing it down is a vital part of the learning process. And once you’ve written it? Talk about it! You can either do this in a study group or to your cat, but whoever it is, tell them about what it is you’ve learned. Talking out loud uses an entirely different part of the brain again. Come up with a rhyme or rap or poem if that helps too, then mantra the crap out of it until your brain has digested the information.
The brain is an organ that behaves like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Get yourself into the practice of learning more efficiently, and it’ll become easier with time.
What do you do to remember those important facts and figures?
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Photos: Kat Kennedy