The science behind memory, studying, and remembering it
// Colin Spensley

Quickly now, think about last Wednesday. What did you have for breakfast? Lunch? Can you list the ingredients in that meal? Who was your best friend in kindergarten? What are the capital cities of all the Canadian provinces?

These facts, at one point or another, had some relevance in your life. Now, they have likely faded into blurry memories. Now think back to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001: what were you doing? What day does your Grandmother’s birthday fall on? Who was your first kiss? Perhaps these memories stir up more vivid images than the questions posed before, but why?

The factors that affect the importance of an event could be what cause a memory to stick, but it could also the number of times that memory is repeated in your consciousness. Scientists have struggled with these questions for over a hundred years, and have seen some fascinating breakthroughs in the last few years.

Brain Basics

We rely on memory for nearly everything we do in our lives. From recognizing words in a textbook to remembering when to catch your bus, we simply could not survive effectively without the most basic forms of memory. It’s no surprise that memory is a complex and intricate part of our brain.

To fully grasp memory and the brain, we need to look at how memory is stored. This process begins with the entorhinal cortex, a region of the brain. This cortex resides in the temporal lobe just behind your ears, and as a gate to memory serves as a network to all aspects of memory.

“What it does is gather information from parts of the cortex and relays it deeper in the lobe to an area called the hippocampus,” says Tony Phillips, the Science Director for the CIHR Institute for Neuroscience. “The entorhinal cortex and the hippocampus are not just a one way street, however. It’s more of a loop in which information can come in and pass back out to the cortex.”

Once a memory has entered through the entorhinal cortex, there are three main stages to making a memory last. “The bits of information are first encoded which is the first step of cognition [and] this happens over a length of time. The second process is called consolidation. The information in your brain then has to go through more changes to be long lasting.” says Phillips. “The third step is called storage, which is where the information is located somewhere in the brain waiting to be reactivated.”

The key to long-term memory retention is often referred to as the three “R’s”: Recall, Recognition, and Re-Learning. These three methods of remembering all work in varying degrees of complexity and are responsible for even the most obscure reminiscences. For example, “recall” is used to quickly remember the basic information we retain. Who we are, what we do, and how we do it are all types of “recall” memory.

“By recalling a memory you are actually reactivating a little network of activity, that contains the information that constitutes the memory,” says Phillips.

Remembering Memories Past

For over a century, scientists have theorized over how the brain interrupts memories, stores them, and then brings them up again when needed. German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus began research in this field in 1885 with his book Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology, which is still used widely today.

During his research, Ebbinghaus found that memory relies heavily on emotion and feeling – even in the most sterile of tests. He found that people attached significance to even simple three letter words like DAX or TYR when remembering them even though these had no previous relation to their lives before the experiments.

Ebbinghaus also pioneered research on learning and forgetting, dubbed “The Forgetting Curve”. Ebbinghaus states that there are three stages of forgetting information which all depend on the strength of the memory. The first and most rapid stage of forgetting is within the first 20 minutes of learning, followed by one hour, and then four to five days. The rapidity of forgetting information is determined by many factors including the difficulty of the material and the emotional context in which it is presented.

Although we do not consciously control our memories and the speed at which we forget them, Ebbinghaus spoke of the studying method known today as “cramming”.

In his book Ebbinghaus claims, “He who learns quickly also forgets quickly.” This is a crucial tip to any students toying with the idea of all night study sessions the night before a mid-term or final. Optimal study times and different types of auditory or visual studying are easy ways for students to make the information stick. Although what Ebbinghaus claimed about memory still remains true, students forced to cram might be able to use some techniques that will allow them to still remember facts learned at the last minute.

Mnemonic Memory Methods and More

Although many psychologists and memory scientists will tell you that slow and steady will always win the memory race, there have been some breakthroughs in the last few years that could help students cram better. Techniques such as optimal study time and mnemonic devices can help students fill their memory banks with facts and theories related to your next exam; however, these adverse studying strategies won’t help you much in the long run.

Mnemonic devices are tactics we use quite frequently, often unknowingly, to remember facts or details. Mnemonics are ways to relate large amounts of knowledge to simple anagrams or numerical sequences. The Roy G. Biv abbreviation for the seven colours of the rainbow is a simple mnemonic, which will hopefully stick within your hippocampus for a long time. Mnemonics are easy to create and incredibly useful once memorized. They don’t have to be anagrams or number sequences, either; just ways to associate small concepts to much larger ideas and information.

Researchers at UC San Diego have recently released a study that states that cramming just doesn’t work when trying to remember information long term. Although in the short term you may be able to remember the information you need to pass your next test, this information is usually forgotten very quickly – which could be a problem in the future if you’re studying to become a brain surgeon.

However, if there is no alternative to cramming, the study does mention optimal studying time for cramming. The study claims that if you have a test on a class on Monday and an exam the following week, the best day to study would be Wednesday or Thursday. The day after class is too soon, and any time after Thursday would be too late. This is related to the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and how long it takes to forget information you’re trying to store. The best thing to do is study early and lay off the late-night, caffeine- induced cram sessions.

Making it Stick, With Science!

On Feb. 9, 2012, researchers at UCLA published their findings regarding memory and stimulating parts of the brain to help with memory retention.

“Our preliminary results provide evidence supporting a possible mechanism for enhancing memory, particularly as people age or suffer from early dementia,” says Itzhak Fried, the senior author of the research paper.

Their method of stimulating the entorhinal cortex in the brains of seven subjects who suffer from epilepsy has resulted in optimistic findings: “When we stimulated the nerve fibers in the patients’ entorhinal cortex during learning, they later recognized landmarks and navigated the routes more quickly,” says Fried. “They even learned to take shortcuts, reflecting improved spatial memory.”

The test involved subjects playing a video game in which they drove a taxi, delivering customers to various parts of a city.

Although Fried says it is much too early to begin plans for a memory enhancing “thinking cap”, the concept of memory stimulants has been floating around in scientific communities for a few years now. Phillips claims that neuroscientists are now very close to fully understanding the molecular biology behind what makes a memory and with that will come more scientific breakthroughs.

“This will open up a whole new field of opportunity by which we could physical manipulate that process and either erase an unwanted memory or strengthen a desirable one,” he says.

According to Phillips, these developments would likely take form as memory-enhancing drugs, and have other practical uses as well. The treatment of soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by helping them to forget a traumatic event or helping people with dementia from losing all facets of their memories are goals that Phillips and his colleges are working towards.

Phillips does warn of the potential risk of these memory-enhancing drugs giving advantages to the privileged who could afford them, saying that they would hopefully only be available to the elder or sick who truly need them.

“We are basically memory machines,” says Phillips. “So, the more we learn about memory, the more we learn about ourselves and human nature.”

Hopefully with these advancements in memory science, we will soon uncover the secrets of learning and cognition. However, until then, students will likely continue their 4am study sessions, trying to force names and dates down the funnel that is the entorhinal cortex, and make it stick in their hippocampus.

//Clin Spensley, columns editor
//Graphics by Desiree Wallace

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com