It’s a fact universally acknowledged that physical fitness can be trained, and that this is a healthy and clever thing to do. What is less often considered is that mental fitness can also be trained. And luckily for us, we live in an age when we have the science to point us in the right direction!
Before we dive into the following techniques, it’s worth pointing out that learning is really just the process of acquiring memories. As such, some of these tricks will address the acquisition phase of memory (learning), and others will address the retention phase (remembering). Learning a physical skill involves a similar neurological process to learning information, so that might come up too.
Uncomfortably, this topic seemed best serviced by that loathsome beast of the clickbait world¹: a numbered list. The list has been camouflaged into different sections though, and your mind will only be improved rather than blown, so it could be worse.
Getting your neurons networked
So first off, what actually is memory? Where does it live? While there is still a fair amount of uncertainty around the details (including an interesting competing hypothesis), the general consensus is that memories reside in the networks formed by neurons of our brain, i.e. in the way our neurons interact. It’s just like how The Beatles doesn’t reside with any individual member of the band. John Lennon buying milk or Ringo clipping his toenails are just dudes doing stuff. The Beatles depended on the four members getting together and jamming.
So that’s the first secret: in order to create
The Beatles a memory, you need to get your neurons jamming together. This is very much a physical process in which new connections literally get built between your brain cells, and it takes time. There are a few ways to help the process out.
1. Spaced repetition
When you’re trying to form a brand new memory, the neurons involved might not be very familiar with each other. This means that early on they need a lot of time together, via you revisiting the material, or you risk rapidly losing the memory. As these neurons build stronger connections though, the memory becomes increasingly stable over time and needs revisiting less often. It looks something like this:
The fact that people usually learn by cramming (if they even revisit a memory at all) is why you’ve forgotten 95% of the stuff you studied at university, and almost everything that happens in your day-to-day life. To properly form a memory you have to revisit it at intervals.
There are several apps available that use spaced repetition algorithms to help you learn things. Anki is a free flashcard option that I like, and if you’re looking to learn a language, Duolingo has spaced repetition built into its core teaching modus.
For more detail on spaced repetition, this article offers a good overview and some academic references.
Your long-term memory is like an enormous warehouse: you can store a phenomenal amount of stuff in there. But for memories to be useful, it’s not enough to be good at forming them and retaining them. You also need to practise retrieving them, or they’ll end up lost in the clutter.
For this reason, repeatedly studying material isn’t always the best use of your time. The information may already be in there, and what you actually need to work on is retrieving it. The best way to practise this is by testing yourself.
The effect was demonstrated in a 2006 study by Karpicke and Roediger III, in which participants attempted to memorise word lists either by repeatedly studying them, studying them once then repeatedly testing themselves, or using a mixture of studying and testing.
Participants who only studied the words (white circles) performed worst, whereas the best results were seen for participants who alternated studying with self-testing (black circles). Only testing was also better than studying (crosses).
Testing can be done using flashcards or in writing, or simply by sitting there and seeing if you can remember the answer. Receiving feedback makes the testing even more effective—interestingly, especially if the feedback is delayed.
One of the most common approaches to learning is called ‘blocking’, which means working on one skill until it is fairly mastered before moving on to the next. A good example is maths in school, where you might do a big unit on algebra for several weeks, a big unit of trigonometry for several weeks, and a big unit of calculus at some other time.
This approach seems intuitively logical, but it turns out it’s much worse for truly learning than interleaving. Interleaving means you mix things up and work on different skills and topics for shorter amounts of time, coming back to them frequently:
The reason interleaving is so effective may be that it prevents your brain from dropping into autopilot mode. It instead forces your brain to engage and freshly appraise each new problem, which results in stronger neural connections forming. Where interleaving really shines is over the long term. For example, one 2007 study taught students by using either interleaving (‘mixers’) or blocking. When tested one week later, the interleaving students scored three times higher than the blocking students.
So if you have a selection of things you’re trying to learn or remember, mix it up. Code for a little while, practise violin for a bit, switch to to European history, then code a little more.
This article offers a wealth of further details and sources.
Recruiting multiple brain systems
I recently wrote about the excellent science in the Pixar film Inside Out. If you haven’t yet seen it [very minor spoiler alert], it portrays memories as glowing spheres with an emotion attached to each one. This is not so different to how memories actually work:
“The hippocampus takes simultaneous memories from different sensory regions of the brain and connects them into a single ‘episode’ of memory, for example, you may have one memory of a dinner party rather than multiple separate memories of how the party looked, sounded, and smelled.”
Our brains are built to readily remember narratives, things in physical space, and events with an emotional dimension – quite possibly because these things would once have had carried survival value. As such, these are all excellent brain systems to exploit for the sake of memory.
4. Visual and spatial memory: Method of loci
The method of loci, also know as the memory palace, is a memory technique so powerful that it has been the force driving many of the world’s foremost memory champions. The reason it works so well is that it exploits our ancient and highly evolved spatial memory system (particularly the hippocampus), which was once critical for remembering where to find food. As well as being employed by Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock, it comes with a fascinating legend:
“According to myth, the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos invented the technique after attending a banquet gone wrong. Simonides stepped outside to meet with two young men. But when he arrived outside, the young men were not there and the hall was collapsing behind him. Though his fellow banqueters were too badly crushed by the collapse for their remains to be identified, Simonides was supposedly able to put a name with each body based on where they had been sitting in the hall.”
So how can we use this? Start by taking any building with which you’re highly familiar. Partition it into rooms/areas, and imagine yourself walking through the building, placing each thing you’re trying to remember in a subsequent room or area. You can then imagine re-walking through the building, and you should be able to picture the things where you left them (like so many crushed Greeks).
5. Visual and spatial memory: Associative tricks
Way back in my undergrad degree, I once wasted (that’s right, wasted) a whole evening trying to memorise the Krebs cycle. It was the night before the test, naturally:
Cut to the next morning, queuing nervously outside the test hall, and I suddenly realised I’d forgotten everything. It was like some stress-induced fog of war had descended and obscured all the finicky detail I so direly needed. Seeing my rising panic, a friend told me to calm down. They had a single sentence to bring me salvation, one which I have never since come close to forgetting:
Cindy is kinky, so she f***s more often.
It’s punchy enough to really stick in the mind right? Now, take the first letter of each word:
C I K S S F M O
I haven’t had any reason to think about the Krebs cycle in almost a decade now, and yet there the order is, pointless stowed away in my brain, probably forever. And the reason is all thanks to association.
Associative memory tricks can take many forms, from catchy mnemonics (such as Cindy being kinky) to metaphors, analogies, or highly memorable mental visualisations. You can think of them as dressing up somewhat boring information in a sparkly jumpsuit that your brain won’t be able to forget. These techniques enlist the services of several brain regions, particularly the hippocampus, but also the medial temporal lobe, prefrontal cortex and motor areas.
While they may seem a little kitschy, associative tricks are used extensively by the world’s greatest memory champions, and can be invaluable in remembering any kind of arbitrary details. Good options include the name of someone you’ve just met, or the order of the planets.
For a guide on how to use the particularly powerful ‘visualization & association’ approach, check out this post.
6. Attention and motivation systems: Interest
Speaking of forgetting people’s names, do you often find yourself doing this the moment you learn them? It might not be that your memory is particularly bad, but simply that you don’t really care. That’s perfectly reasonable though. Statistically speaking, they probably won’t become that important in your life (because most people don’t). You might not even see them again, or worse: maybe they’re boring. So why waste brain space on their name?
An extensive body of research has shown that simply being interested in a topic leads to significantly improved recall and understanding of it. This is likely partly because you’re paying more attention (via the acetylcholine learning system), and because you’re more motivated (via the dopaminergic reward system). People who are interested in history pay more attention to history, meaning they remember it more easily, which makes them seem smarter.
The tricky question is: how do you make yourself interested in something? I suspect there’s probably no easy answer or maths teachers would’ve figured out how to leverage it against their students aeons ego. If simply trying to be interested doesn’t work, maybe you can lure yourself some interest with a bottle of this, whatever the hell it is:
Learning by doing
There’s a lot of truth to the old adage “practice makes perfect”, to an extent. You’ve probably heard the claim that it takes 10,000 hours to master any skill (based on research by Ericsson et al., and popularised by the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers). However, a more recent study by Hambrick et al. has shown this claim to be misleading. For example, plenty of chess players reach master status in well under 10,000 hours, while some poor shmucks still find themselves stuck as lowly intermediates even after 20,000 hours of practice:
Sadly, the truth is that we all have natural aptitudes that will shape, to an extent, what we can hope to achieve. The good news though is that according to the same study, practice can explain about a third of performance skill, in activities ranging from chess to music. Even more excitingly, as pointed out by Josh Kaufman, the 10,000 hour claim only applies to gaining mastery of a skill, which is usually far more than we need. To merely gain competence in a skill—good enough to use day to day—requires something more like 20 hours.
P.s. Since learning this fact I’ve calculated that it took me about 30 hours over the course of a year to become competent in a handful of juggling moves. Haha, handful. Pun.
Anyway here are two tricks to get you learning by doing more easily and more effectively.
7. The pomodoro technique
You know when you’re not learning? When you’re procrastinating. We all know why we procrastinate: because we’re a useless failure of a human with no self-control.
A few years back, researchers Lyons and Beilock investigated procrastination by getting participants to imagine having to do maths while they were having their brains scanned. They found activation in brain regions associated with visceral threat detection and even in experiencing pain. Think about that: merely imagining maths causes real experiential threat and even pain.
Procrastination is therefore a battle between two brain regions: our powerful ancient pain centres, and our weaker more recently evolved prefrontal cortex (which basically just wants us to be a passably decent human being). Interestingly, Lyons & Beilock found that the pain centres stopped being activated once their subjects actually started doing maths. So it’s not the process that hurts, just our anticipation of it.
Knowing this, how can we arm the prefrontal cortex? Enter the pomodoro:
It looks like a tomato crossed with a timer. It means ‘tomato’ in Italian. It is in fact a timer.
The pomodoro technique is a way to subvert procrastination by helping us slip past that anticipatory stage (when our pain centres are activated) into the doing phase (when they’re not). It is super simple:
- Set a timer for 25 minutes
- Do the thing you don’t want to do until the timer goes off
Twenty-five minutes is not that long a time to do anything, however boring or unpleasant it might be. You also get to reward yourself afterwards with a break and maybe a snack. Knowing these two facts, it becomes much easier to jump into the task, at which point it suddenly isn’t so bad.
Pomodoros can be chained together throughout the day to methodically chip away at intimidatingly unwieldy or boring tasks, and the duration of the working and break phases can be adjusted to suit your natural rhythm. 52 minutes of working then 17 minutes of break is the average for the most productive people.
8. Deliberate practice
While amount practice accounts for about a third of learned ability, and there’s surely a genetic component involved, another factor is quality of practice.
If you’ve ever tried learning an instrument, you will know the siren call, often felt while struggling with a tricky new song, to bust into something that you’ve already mastered. This is the opposite of deliberate practice, and if you’re trying to learn something new, it’s a big waste of time.
Deliberate practice can help you solidify material in a fraction of the usual time by identifying the parts you’re worst at and focusing your effort on them. It’s like being good at military strategy by allocating your troops to where they’re actually needed.
- Identify the information or skill that you want to learn
- Choose a way to measure your performance. This could be as simple as being self-aware and honest, or may involve testing (e.g. with flashcards), tracking data or seeking feedback from others.
- Monitor your progress over time
- Constantly redirect effort toward your weakest area
Deliberate practice is the learning equivalent of interval exercise. It’s unpleasant, requires discipline and may be exhausting, but it compresses benefit into the shortest possible time span.
There are also physical components to learning and memory, but you already know you should be doing these, so we won’t go into them in detail. The two main ones are:
- Get enough damn sleep
You need sleep to consolidate long-term memories. It’s as simple as that. (this is another aspect of neuroscience that Inside Out got spot on). Recent research has emphasised the role of slow-wave sleep in particular. Sleep also seems to allow cerebrospinal fluid to flush away accumulating amyloid plaques, and not getting Alzheimer’s is always nice.
- Get some damn exercise
Are you stuck with just the brain cells you already have? No! Go for a run and your hippocampus will literally start churning out new neurons. You’ll likely get a boost in mood and cognition to boot (haha, boot, another unintentional pun).
That’s it for this month folks! Happy learning and remembering.
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†The other odd phenomena of the clickbait era is constantly worrying that your title might be too clickbaity and will repel intelligent readers, so then you have to think up something a little more boring—but not TOO boring!
Serious Non-Meme References
- Learning and memory:
- Memories May Not Live in Neurons’ Synapses:
- Learning by Spaced Repetition: http://lifeinthefastlane.com/learning-by-spaced-repetition/
- Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention:
- The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention: http://psych.wustl.edu/memory/Roddy%20article%20PDF’s/Roediger%20&%20Butler%20%282011%29_TCS.pdf
- Interleaved Practice: A Secret Enhanced Learning Technique:
- The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning: http://uweb.cas.usf.edu/~drohrer/pdfs/Rohrer&Taylor2007IS.pdf
- The Interleaving Effect: Mixing It Up Boosts Learning:
- How Are Memories Stored in the Brain?:
- Secrets of a Mind-Gamer: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/02/20/magazine/mind-secrets.html
- The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0006899371903581
- The Secrets of Sherlock’s Mind Palace: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/secrets-sherlocks-mind-palace-180949567/?no-ist
- Associative Learning and the Hippocampus: http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2005/02/suzuki.aspx
- Visualization & Association: http://www.memory-improvement-tips.com/memory-association.html
- Interest, reading, and learning: Theoretical and practical considerations: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A%3A1016667621114#page-1
- Motivating the Academically Unmotivated: A Critical Issue for the 21st Century: http://rer.sagepub.com/content/70/2/151
- The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance: http://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/gel/EricssonDeliberatePracticePR93.pdf
- Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert?: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289613000421
- Josh Kaufman: It Takes 20 Hours Not 10,000 Hours To Learn A Skill: http://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2013/05/30/josh-kaufman-it-takes-20-hours-not-10000-hours-to-learn-a-skill/#1a82a64a1ea5
- When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0048076
- The Rule of 52 and 17: Productivity in Intervals: http://examinedexistence.com/the-rule-of-52-and-17-productivity-in-intervals/
- The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance: http://www.skillteam.se/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Ericsson_delib_pract.pdf
- Want To Become An Expert At Something? Try Deliberate Practice: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/want-become-expert-something-try-deliberate-practice/
- About Sleep’s Role in Memory: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768102/
- Our poor sleeping habits are filling our brains with neurotoxins: http://qz.com/424120/our-poor-sleeping-habits-could-be-filling-our-brains-with-neurotoxins/
- Neurogenesis and Exercise: Past and Future Directions: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5566493_Neurogenesis_and_Exercise_Past_and_Future_Directions