Memory and Learning

Memory and learning“The purpose of memory is not to let us recall the past, but to let us anticipate the future. Memory is a tool for prediction.” memory and learning

– Alain Berthoz

Below are two TED talks on the power of learning.

The first is by Stanford professor Carol Dweck on the power of believing that we can improve. Her point is that the “effort and difficulty” of trying mean our neurons are making new connections as we’re learning and improving. This is then combined with willpower to assist building grey matter/ neurons in prefrontal cortex.

The second is by Angela Lee Duckworth and considers the role of “grit” in creating success.

Pavlovian Conditioning

Learning is a change in behaviour resulting from experience. It helps us adapt to our environment. Classical conditioning is a form of learning that is sometimes referred to as “Pavlovian conditioning”. Repeated pairing of bell sounds with food caused Pavlov’s dog to salivate at the sound of the bell alone. Other examples of Pavlovian conditioning would be learning to feel anxiety:

1) At the sight of flashing police lights in your rear-view mirror; or
2) When you hear sounds at the dentist’s office.

A habitual porn user may condition his sexual arousal to screens, viewing certain acts, or clicking from video to video.

This section is based on material from “The brain from top to bottom” an open source guide produced by McGill University in Canada. It is highly recommended if you want to learn more.

Learning is a process that lets us retain acquired information, affective (emotional) states, and impressions that can influence our behaviour. Learning is the main activity of the brain, in which this organ continuously modifies its own structure to better reflect the experiences that we have had.

Learning can also be equated with encoding, the first step in the process of memorisation. Its result – memory – is the persistence both of autobiographical data and of general knowledge.

But memory is not entirely faithful. When you perceive an object, groups of neurons in different parts of your brain process the information about its shape, colour, smell, sound, and so on. Your brain then draws connections among these different groups of neurons, and these relationships constitute your perception of the object. Subsequently, whenever you want to remember the object, you must reconstruct these relationships. The parallel processing that your cortex does for this purpose, however, can alter your memory of the object.

Also, in your brain’s memory systems, isolated pieces of information are memorised less effectively than those associated with existing knowledge. The more associations between the new information and things that you already know, the better you will learn it. For example, you will have an easier time remembering that the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the knee bone, if you already have some basic knowledge of anatomy or know the song.

Psychologists have identified a number of factors that can influence how effectively memory functions.

1) Degree of vigilance, alertness, attentiveness, and concentration. Attentiveness is often said to be the tool that engraves information into memory. Rapt attention is the basis of neuroplasticity. Attention deficits can radically reduce memory performance. Too much screen time can damage working memory and produce symptoms that mimic ADHD. We can improve our memory capacity by making a conscious effort to repeat and integrate information. Stimuli that unconsciously promotes physical survival, such as erotica, does not require a conscious effort to be alluring. It requires a conscious effort to keep viewing it under control.

Nathana Rebouças

2) Interest, strength of motivation, and need or necessity. It is easier to learn when the subject fascinates us. Thus, motivation is a factor that enhances memory. Some young people who do not always do very well at the subjects they are forced to take in school often have a phenomenal memory for statistics about their favourite sports or websites.

3) Affective (emotional) values associated with the material to be memorised, and the individual’s mood and intensity of emotion. Our emotional state when an event occurs can greatly influence our memory of it. Thus, if an event is very upsetting or arousing, we will form an especially vivid memory of it. For example, many people remember where they were when they learned about Princess Diana’s death, or about the attacks of September 11, 2001. The processing of emotionally-charged events in memory involves norepinephrine/noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter that is released in larger amounts when we are excited or tense. As Voltaire put it, that which touches the heart is engraved in the memory.

4) Location, light, sounds, smells…in short, the entire context in which the memorising takes place is recorded along with the information being memorised. Our memory systems are thus contextual. Consequently, when we have trouble remembering a particular fact, we may be able to retrieve it by recollecting where we learned it or the book or website from which we learned it. Was there a picture on that page? Was the information toward the top of the page, or the bottom? Such items are called “recall indexes”. And because we always memorise the context along with the information that we are learning, by recalling this context we can very often, by a series of associations, recall the information itself.

Forgetting lets us get rid of the tremendous amount of information that we process every day but that our brain decides it will not need in future. Sleep helps with this process.

Photos by Marcos Paulo Prado, Nathana Rebouças on Unsplash.