Psychological research has long been fascinated with how humans learn and retain memories. As a result of this fascination, research has revealed some amazing facts about learning and memory.
1. Recalling Memories Changes Them
This is bad news for the expert eyewitnesses. Research by Neuroscientist Daniela Schiller, has shown that the simple act of recalling a memory can actually change the memory1.
For example, a simple act of recalling something from your past – say a specific birthday present you bought for somebody years ago – weakens other related memories.
Psychologists say that this phenomenon allows people to actively reconstruct past memories. As people are unaware they are creating these inaccurate memories it can lead to the creation of false memories and can even support the development of irrational fears.
It could be argued that we essentially create our own past to serve our own needs and future self-identity.
2. Learning Environment is Highly Important to Learning Performance
If you’ve ever heard anyone discussing a strange ritual they perform in order to try and learn something, then it turns out they might be on to something. It has been shown that learning depends heavily on where, how, whom you are with and what’s around you.
If you’ve ever had one of those days when ‘nothing is sinking in’ then try changing the environment around you. Researchers at the University of Sydney showed that learning is heavily dependent on context and that it is more difficult to learn and retain new knowledge when it is out of context2.
So, for example, if you are learning about nature, then your learning and memory formation will be far better if you are in a natural environment, learning about nature sat inside would be more difficult as it would be out of context.
3. Forgotten Memories are Still Alive
We’ve all had that feeling when we can’t remember something we thought we knew, we assume the memory has just gone and has been replaced with something more recent and useful to us. The American Psychologist Journal details experiments showing that memories that have long been inaccessible can be revived.3
The experiments have shown that much like the physical phenomenon of ‘muscle memory’, these forgotten memories can not only be re-accessed but can be relearned more quickly and easily than new information.
Researchers also found one case of a woman who was having musical hallucinations of songs she didn’t recognise but others did. The researchers concluded from this that the woman was likely to have known the music earlier in her life but had since forgotten them. This raises interesting questions about how much we really understand about memory.
4. Memory Suppression Works
While Sigmund Freud argued that mental health problems were often the result of suppressed memories leaving an unconscious impression on the brain that would eventually undermine an individual’s well-being, one study by researchers at Maastricht University has actually shown the opposite to be true.4
Numerous studies are now beginning to show that simply suppressing an unwanted memory can be helpful in changing future behaviour. This would agree with mental health advice that is generally given in that it is better to be aware of and to challenge unwanted thoughts and memories in order to construct new and healthier memories.
5. Learning Capacity is Limited
This might seem extremely obvious but classrooms around the world generally ignore this fact. Creation of new information by the brain can be very difficult especially when it is not linked to any relevant information already stored, the capacity to process brand new bits of information is limited and requires a great deal of attention.
In order for learning capacity not to become overloaded and significantly deteriorate, it is important that teaching is well prepared. This means ensuring it is not overwhelming, it is engaging and that new information is connected to old information in a coherent and meaningful way.
Trying to learn sporadic chunks of new information is likely to lead to it being processed poorly and ultimately not retained. You can read more about the Cognitive Load Theory here.
In all, knowing a few things about the psychology of learning and memory could help you easier retain information.
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