Friday, June 21, 2013

Notes on Memory

How Memory Works: 10 Things Most People Get Wrong

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"If we remembered everything we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing." ~William James

(it is based on an excellent review chapter by the distinguished UCLA memory expert, Professor Robert A. Bjork)

1. Memory does not decay

Everything is stored in there but, without rehearsal, memories become harder to access. This means it's not the memory that's 'going off' it's the ability to retrieve it.

2. Forgetting helps you learn

To make your super-brain quicker and more useful in the real world you'd have to build in some system for discounting old, useless info. In fact, of course, we all have one of these super-brains with a discounting system: we call it 'forgetting'.

3. 'Lost' memories can live again

Even things that you have long been unable to recall are still there, waiting to be woken. Experiments have shown that even information that has long become inaccessible can still be revived. Indeed it is then re-learned more quickly than new information.
This is like the fact that you never forget how to ride a bike.

4. Recalling memories alters them

The process of recall, then, is actually actively constructing the past, or at least the parts of your past that you can remember.
This is only the beginning though. False memories can potentially be created by this process of falsely recalling the past. Indeed, psychologists have experimentally implanted false memories.

5. Memory is unstable

What this means is that students, in particular, vastly underestimate how much effort will be required to commit material to memory. And they're not the only ones. This leads to...

6. The foresight bias (overconfidence of own memory)

Everyone must have experienced this. You have an idea that is so great you think it's impossible you'll ever forget it. So you don't bother writing it down. Within ten minutes you've forgotten it and it never comes back.
We see the same thing in the lab. In one study by Koriat and Bjork (2005) people learned pairs of words like 'light-lamp', then are asked to estimate how likely it is they'll be able to answer 'lamp' when later given the prompt 'light'. They are massively over-confident and the reason is this foresight bias. When they get the word 'light' later all kinds of other things come to mind like 'bulb' or 'shade' and the correct answer isn't nearly as easy to recall as they predicted.

7. When recall is easy, learning is low

We feel clever when we recall something instantly and stupid when it takes ages. But in terms of learning, we should feel the exact reverse. When something comes to mind quickly, i.e. we do no work to recall it, no learning occurs. When we have to work hard to bring it to consciousness, something cool happens: we learn.
This is why proper learning techniques always involve testing, because just staring at the information isn't good enough: learning needs effortful recall.

8. Learning depends heavily on context

Have you ever noticed that when you learn something in one context, like the classroom, it becomes difficult to recall when that context changes?
This is because learning depends heavily on how and where you do it: it depends on who is there, what is around you and how you learn.
It turns out that in the long-term people learn information best when they are exposed to it in different ways or different contexts. When learning is highly context-dependent, it doesn't transfer well or stick as well over the years.

9. Memory, reloaded

It turns out that for long-term retention, memories are more easily recalled if learning is mixed up
One explanation for why this works is called the 'reloading hypothesis'. Each time we switch tasks we have to 'reload' the memory. This process of reloading strengthens the learning.

10. Learning is under your control

The practical upshot of these facts about memory is that we often underestimate how much control we have over our own memory.
Techniques like using different contexts, switching between tasks and strenuous reconstruction of memories can all help boost retention.
People also tend to think that the past is fixed and gone; it can't be changed. But how we recall the past and think about it can be changed. Recalling memories in different ways can help us re-interpret the past and set us off on a different path in the future. For example, studies have shown that people can crowd out painful negative memories by focusing on more positive ones (Levy & Anderson, 2008).
Image credit: kozumel
light widescreen tablet PC with dependable 32GB flash memory capacity might be a useful memory tool.

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