A common memory misconception is that we only use a small percentage of our brain; like about 10%. This is untrue and is based on incorrect interpretations about the brain and memory. Movies like Limitless and Momento, while entertaining, sensationalize what happens in the brain and create stories to fill in the gaps (the brain is complicated). People have bought into the idea that we have some untapped potential that has gone to waste. There are no pills or potions that can unlock our ability to learn and remember. It takes paying attention and using memory strategies to have better memory. Find out more about how this belief may have spread in this video.
Have you ever looked at vacation pictures and felt more connected to the picture itself than the actual memory of the vacation? We often are too connected to our phone and social media during fun experiences like vacation that we end up sacrificing our memory. That’s right, memory researchers have found that the more you take pictures or focus on posting about our experiences on social media, the less detail you actually remember. Unless you are hoping to catch an award-winning photo, put the phone down and let your memory capture the sights and sounds of life’s memorable experiences.
How often do you fail to remember the name of the person who just said hi to you but YOU KNOW YOU KNOW who they are? This common problem is often referred to as Tip of the Tongue State. Find out what to do to correct this every day memory problem in this video.
There are lots of reasons to feel negatively affected by the world around you. Personal struggles, mental, physical, financial, just to name a few, may be affecting you now more than ever. Psychology explains much of human behavior by looking at motivating factors. Some motivators are positive, like using the promise of a walk outside at the end of the work day to push through. Other motivators call you to action all the same, but have a dark side. For example, I’m guilty of telling my children that if they don’t behave according to expectations that I will take away their TV time. Most people, including my children, respond better with a positive motivators.
Like motivation, the way we view the world can be shrouded in positivity and negativity. The more I spend my working life online, the less I spend talking to students and colleagues face-to-face. This experience has shifted the amount of time I seem to be alone with my thoughts — SO MUCH MORE.
I’m reminded that my memory reflects who I am and largely shapes my inner voice. The idea that our memory shapes our personality is one I never get tired of considering. Charles Fernyhough, author and psychologist, describes how memory forms identify in more detail here. If you too find yourself alone coping with our current world more than ever, emphasis on the following memory processes can make your LIFE MORE POSITIVE.
Positivity Bias, also called the Pollyanna principle (named after a book character similar to a modern-day Disney Princess – think Amy Adams as Giselle in Enchanted), is the human tendency to focus on the positive. Bias refers to a general cognitive term, not necessarily always with a negative connotation, in which we are more likely to think one way over the other. This is great news as life seems to be stacking on the difficulty. Just today alone I’ve chatted with two people about how easy it is to focus on negative aspects of life. Maybe it is a small mishap like spilling your morning coffee on a computer or something life-changing like losing a job. Either way, the cumulative effects of daily life can be draining. Those who believe good outweighs the bad are likely to be happier and more resilient in the face of life’s biggest challenges.
Forgetting.Daniel L. Schacter’s groundbreaking work on memory suggests that the secret to a good memory may be forgetting. Consider being able to remember too many mundane details of your life: what you ate each day, the clothes you wear, and all the conversations you have. For a very small number of people this ability, known as hyperthymesia, or highly superior autobiographical memory, is more of a curse than a blessing. Remembering what you did each day may turn out to be a fun party trick; however, for many of these people remembering everything personal has led to depression. Think of it this way. When we have a bad breakup as a teen or suffer an embarrassment at the office most of us, overtime, consider the event less terrible. A dulling of the severity or negativity of the memory has occurred. This normal course of forgetting allows us to become wiser and learn from our experiences. It also gives us the opportunity to reshape our thinking and put negativity in the past. Not being able to forget details of extremely negative events, like a traumatic car accident or a violent act when remembered, can lead to Post-traumatic Stress and anxiety.
As much as we may wish for a better memory, forgetting has its advantages!
Reminiscence or discussing the past can also be a favorite way to live in the present reality. Psychologists have discovered a reminiscence bump for memory; individuals older than 40 tend to remember positive events from their teens and twenties more than self-knowledge for other time periods. I think my grandpa was right in how he thought of the past. As a small child I recall his monthly magazine called Reminisce, which I’m delighted to see is still in publication. I would eagerly crawl into his lap to help him with each edition’s notorious seek-and-find game, the where is “Hattie’s Hatpin Contest.” Chances are you may not even know what a hatpin is. As a child of the 1980’s I only saw the one “I found” within these magazines. I suspect what makes this publication so popular and timeless is that we can always relive the past. Through music, laughter, photographs, and video we now more than ever can relive a happy memory of the past.
My students in human memory class are writing a blog for a final course project. This assignment was given in advance of Covid-19 and they could write about ANY topic related to memory. To my surprise, several students decided to write about mental health. This got me thinking about the natural connection between mental health and memory.
Memory Health is Sleep Health:
You may have heard about the connection between sleep and memory. During sleep, memories are consolidated, into neural structures of the brain to a more long-lasting state. Although the most durable memory could take months or years to consolidate, good sleep hygiene elevates our chance of remembering. Many psychological studies have shown the role between learning something, and then sleeping adequately. Sleep’s ultimate payoff may be better memory. Sleep seems to offer a restorative process for brain health. Getting the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night does more than just make us feel refreshed. Non-neurons called glial cells clean and prune unnecessary cells while we sleep. Bottom line is that adequate sleep makes us more energized, our brains healthier, and assists us in remembering. I recommend sticking to a sleep schedule and taking steps to promote sleep during this time. The National Sleep Foundation has some great tips here.
Memory Health is Positive Self-esteem:
Have you heard of the Pollyanna principle? My students have no idea who Pollyanna was but I give them a good analogue – a Disney princess, particularly the character Giselle in Enchanted played by bubbly actor Amy Adams. Pollyanna is a woman from a classic book of the same name, written by Eleanor H. Porter. She becomes this psychological term’s namesake because she is always looking for the positive, even in terrible situations. It turns out that most healthy adults have better memory for positive events than negative. But, add a sprinkle of optimism to negative experiences, or maybe just a little time and reflection and you can remember things in a slightly better light. Take a terrible break up. In the moment it seems like you cannot feel lower. You may not eat, you may cry a lot, and mild depression is common. Many people manage to grow through a bad breakup, reporting years later that they “learned something”, “grew as a person”, or “it wasn’t really that bad.” Thinking positively can lead to greater optimism in the present. Having an overall tendency or bias to remain optimistic has memory benefits; you are more likely to remember positive experiences over negative.
It is important to realize that no amount of positivity can replace the real despair of death or major loss of income. People during this time may need real help. I’m particularly impressed by the American Psychological Association’s commitment to providing pandemic-related resources.
Memory Health is Overall Wellness:
Our thinking can be dramatically influenced by how we live our life. Maintaining positivity and clearer thinking can be enhanced by managing our health through diet and exercise. Go outside and see how people social distancing are spilling out of their houses to enjoy nature. When you are out think about connecting to nature in a deep and meaningful way. Wellness also is maintained by socialization. If you are tired of spending time on the screen you can still connect. Family and friends may be pleased by receiving a card or a phone call. Maybe these “archaic” methods of communication can become our favorite again.
Memory health is mental health. Take control of your sleep, take control of how you view the world, and take control of your wellness.
Chances are this time of unknowns with social/work/family change has you, and your friends and neighbors, on edge. With social distancing though you would need to be a fly on the wall in the homes of your friends to share the reality of this change. Because we are all in this together but actually may be alone, here is some insight into your mental response to the current situation.
Those who enjoy long stints online or gaming with little face-to-face contact may be better equipped for this new found isolation. It seems like many in our culture are comfortably connected on social media more than they are with face-to-face socialization. Author and researcher Sherry Turkle has asserted in her book Alone Together that a generation has learned to expect more from technology than one another.
This mix of stress and enhanced digital connection got me thinking about how our experience through Covid-19 isolation will influence our memory.
Knowledge of memory tells me one thing primarily — Do your best to cope during this time because you will remember it! Our brains encode new and unique experiences more than common ones. As my late grandma would say, “enjoy your life now as it really speeds up as you get older.” She was right by the way as grandmothers always are! This quickening of life is partly due to ‘the same old same old” experiences occurring as we age. College, marriage, birth, and career experiences mark our earlier years and their uniqueness stamp out and slow down time.
For many, this virus crisis will account for something memory researchers call flashbulb memory. First described by psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulick, these memories take on a characteristic like an old flashbulb camera. The light from the bulb illuminates the scene and a picture in time is created. Generations have experienced these indelible memories during the death of JFK, 9/11, and now perhaps a new generation with the corona virus.
My hope is that this period of time expires quite quickly. If it does we can be sure we are all under acute stress. These short periods of stress call upon the sympathetic nervous system to do its job; think fight or flight. During these times of stress our senses, including cognitive abilities like decision-making and memory processes, are enhanced leaving us with vivid memory. Spending two weeks in the house, with or without family members, can lead to enhanced memory for this time. The other option, which no one wants, is to deal with chronic stress. If the effects of Covid 19 are long-lasting then our body releases chemicals that negatively effect our memory, sleep, and other bodily functions.
Okay, so in the best case scenario I have two takes-aways:
1.) This unique time of our lives is so unusual that the days are likely to feel long and we are likely to remember this time period well.
2.) Our stress level, whether acute or chronic, will determine how our brains and bodies respond to this time period.
From a psychological perspective I suggest the following:
Avoid social comparison. As much as social media might save you during this time (think workout and educational videos) comparing your experience to others is dangerous. You do you!
Don’t believe everyone else is FINE. Chances are our view of others dealing with this situation (think social media family pictures of game-playing, working out, and writing poems) is curated so THEY ALL look happy and well.
Take care of yourself and your loved ones first. Try to focus on some basics: eat well, sleep, get outside, laugh, and lower your expectations. This last one is for me so I’ll say it another way. Be kind to yourself and others.
Think of how you can help others where you are. Make a phone or video call to someone more isolated than you, donate to a food bank or your local United Way.
This spring semester I am excited to be teaching a new course on effective learning.
The course, Psychology 150: Science of Learning for College Student Success is designed for any undergraduate student to learn how to learn, a skill that is surprisingly absent from any student curriculum, k-12 and college students respectively.
Psychologists in the field of learning science have been honing in on best practices for learning for over a century. Unfortunately, it is only quite recently that these learning methods have been introduced to students and educators. The references below provide wonderful resources on the science of learning. Picking up any one of these would provide clear and accessible information on how the knowledge gained through learning science can lead to breakthrough changes in learning. Two of my favorites are Powerful Teaching by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain and Understanding How We Learn by https://www.learningscientists.org researchers and teachers Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki.
While these resources can be quite useful for motivated learners, for many students who have been using the same study and learning methods for years (e.g., reading and re-reading their notes, highlighting key concepts; see this Scientific American article on learning strategies that do and do not work) many learners will require deliberate practice and consistent enforcement of useful learning strategies. For example, long-term memory for new information requires that we think about the knowledge and retrieve it often from memory. Students who are told they need to retrieve what they are learning by testing themselves may greatly benefit from classroom practice.
In PSYC 150 my students will be introduced to learning methods but will also work with course peer-tutors to apply the methods to what they need to learn in their other college courses. In addition, the course will emphasize my LEARN method which incorporates cognitive knowledge, learning strategies, and information on healthy practices outside of the classroom.
Planning a new course is not easy and getting additional resources from my university has been even more difficult. I have other trailblazers to thank though for establishing the course. Cognitive psychologists Ed DeLosh, Anne Cleary, and Matthew Rhodes have been teaching a science learning class now for several years. Rather than getting resources to teach the course at the university-level the best chance for success is to incorporate it into a department. Psychology is a natural fit, but other students need the opportunity too. So I recommend incorporating similar modules into first-year experience courses and to build learning content workshops into already established centers for academic success. These bottom-up strategies take some creative thinking but are starting points to a larger university buy-in.
IF THESE OPTIONS STILL SEEM IMPOSSIBLE TO TAKE ON, I URGE STUDENTS AND EDUCATORS TO CONSIDER ANY OF THE FOLLOWING SMALL OPPORTUNITIES:
Pick up any of these mentioned resources and start reading – see what ideas you can begin using now!
Talk about new learning strategies with another student or educator and hold one another accountable for trying some out.
Do you remember the last time you were BORED? If waiting for my zone to be called for a flight doesn’t count, then sadly, NO.
Like many adults, I have little down time. After spending several years in school, then working hard for tenure, and then having two kids, it is difficult to find time to just sit and THINK. Many of my best “what’s next” ideas happen when I am doing something non-academic, like walking the dog or cleaning the toilet.
My “too busy to think” pace of life made me curious about how students take time to think. In an article from the American Psychological Association on transferable skills, employers want job seekers to be able to THINK. Okay, not groundbreaking news? This seemingly silly request actually indicates a need for employees, typically college graduates, to be able to take what they have learned and synthesize and/or apply it to new learning.
It may be obvious that THINKING is needed for learning, but I believe we need to be more deliberate about giving away and taking the time to think. For example, countless studies have shown the positive impact of meta-cognition, or thinking about thinking on learning. More students are aware of being mindful about their thinking, however, I don’t think educators in the classroom may always give students the time to THINK. Pooja Agarwal, author of the incredible book on the science of learning Powerful Teaching addressed a large audience in a recent keynote with the imperative, “STUDENTS NEED TO BE GIVEN TIME TO THINK.”
If you believe this advice is overly simplistic, take a realistic example of how thinking can be cut short in the classroom. Imagine I’m giving a brilliant lecture on types of memory! As I work my way around lively examples of episodic, personal/time-based memories and semantic memories, the general facts that make some people a jeopardy star, how do I know my students are thinking? Students may appear to be listening and could be dutifully taking notes, so are they thinking? Well perhaps not. If they are not asked to stop and reflect, write their own overall summary of the main concepts, and are simply asked “do you understand” or “do you have any questions” there is a high likelihood they have not been given time to think and LEARN (see Dr. Pooja Agarwal’s site, retrievalpractice.org for excellent materials to encourage thoughtful retrieval).
What can learners do to THINK more:
Find time to slow down and be bored. Force yourself to do nothing and see what new ideas or thoughts you have!
When learning, stop to reflect on information by summarizing it in your own words.
Attempt to connect new information with other knowledge.
Be aware of the learning trap of familiarity — feeling like you learned does not guarantee learning. Students often fall into this trap by gaining false confidence that they know material by reading, and re-reading notes.
Ask educators to build Think Time into class. Teachers this means getting comfortable throwing out content in exchange for time to ask students to retrieve what they have learned BEFORE they share it with anyone else. This ensures students can recall information on their own.
NEED MORE TIME TO THINK? Hit the pause button more often. Limit one thing you do each day that either overstimulates you or sucks away time. Take back this time and be alone with your thoughts. You might be surprised what you discover!
Mom friends and acquaintances often ask what I know about how having children influences thinking and memory. Phrases like “mommy brain” and “brain fog” have become part of a social response for memory issues that occur before or after having children. My children are a bit older now, 3 and 7, but I still find myself forgetting a name of someone I have met several times, or walk into a room suddenly unaware of why I am standing there. These issues are embarrassing but typical. Yet, I think we all look for answers when it comes to memory errors.
For all the moms (and other tired caregivers out there), what does current research have to say about the effects of motherhood and memory?
First – how might cognition change during pregnancy?
Findings reveal that as a whole, cognition in pregnant women is uninterrupted throughout. A review of over two decades of research found a small impairment in remembering names and words (1). A separate study on pregnant mothers and a non-pregnant comparison sample revealed that spatial skills (assessed by asking women to remember where a series of squares were presented on a computer screen) were worse at the end of pregnancy and just after giving birth (2). Wow – this seems promising! However, ask anyone who is in their last few weeks of pregnancy and/or first several weeks after birth and they might tell you more than just their vocabulary and spatial memory took a hit!
Secondly – are any cognitive changes long-lasting?
The findings here are promising too! A large sample of women described in the British Journal of Psychiatry did not show any long-term cognitive decline either four years or eight years post-partum (3).
Thirdly – does the brain physically change during pregnancy and motherhood?
Research has shown that women after pregnancy have less gray matter in their brains (4). Brain cells called neurons are covered by a fatty white-looking substance called myelin. It protects the cell and allows it to send a message quickly to other neurons. Other brain cells, glial cells, can be found near the surface of the brain. They are gray in color because they have no fatty myelin. Less gray matter was found in areas of the brain that help women socialize with others for up to two years after pregnancy. One theory is that reduced matter areas are helping assist moms in connecting with their babies – although the story isn’t complete.
Finally – what is left to learn?
This is truly the most interesting question. My brief coverage of the science leads to one strong conclusion – NOT ENOUGH RESEARCH has been done on mothers to know for sure how having children impacts the brain and cognition! The quality of the research is limited to small samples of mothers and often does not include comparison samples or samples with mothers of different race, ethnicity, or social class (5).
There is another major take away for mothers. Many caregivers are forgetful because of stress!
I would argue that stress is responsible for a large piece of the memory problems of caregivers. If you are stressed over meeting the demands of parenting, your attention is often divided between the stress you feel and the task you are trying to accomplish. You certainly cannot remember the names of people you meet on the soccer field because your attention is tuned into your lovely child playing soccer or the incessant “mom, mom, mom/dad, dad, dad) coming at your heels from a two-year old. If your attention is always split between two things, you will remember very little and you are also likely tired from the effort required to do many things at once. Spending several hours or days with increased stress can overwork your brain and your body. Overtime, your brain produces stress hormones that can disrupt body functions like thinking clearly but can lead to depression and disease.
Whenever possible focus on ONLY one thing at a time. There is no such thing as a champion multitask-er. For physical relief from stress, the Mayo clinic has great advice on how you can change your behavior. For more serious issues in parenting and stress, the American Psychological Association offers science-based parenting resources.
Ouellette, S.J., Hampson, E. (2019). Memory and affective changes during the antepartum: A narrative review and integrative hypothesis. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 41 (1), 87-107.
Farrar, D., Tuffnell, D., Neill, J., Scally, A. & Marshall, K. (2014). Assessment of cognitive function across pregnancy using CANTAB: A longitudinal study. Brain and Cognition, 84(1), 76-84.
Christensen, H., Leach, L.S., Mackinnon, A. (2010). The British Journal of Psychiatry, 196 (2), 126-132.
Hoekzema, E., Barba-Müller, E., Pozzobon, C., Picado, M., Lucco, F. (2017). Nature Neuroscience 20 (2), 287-296.
Duarte-Guterman, P., Leuner, B., Galea, L. A.M. (2019). Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 53.
Learning, as difficult as it can be has a very simple definition — the persistence of knowledge overtime. However, the definition’s three pieces: persistence, knowledge, and overtime lead to muddied ideas of when and how learning occurs.
At the end of a school year, ask a teacher what learning is and how he knows it has occurred and you’re sure to get a different response than that of a child, a parent, or a state funding agency.
As students across the country begin soaking up the summer sun, a familiar concern is brought to light — what happens to student learning in the summer?
The answer is as varied as the definition of learning. There is a general consensus that by summer’s end students are behind 1 month in learning gains (typically measured by comparing test scores from the previous spring with the current fall in subjects like reading and math). Research has also revealed differences in learning loss and gain depending on characteristics like race, socioeconomic status, and age.
Minnesota Public Radio News recently dedicated an hour to the dip in summer learning, known as the summer slide (1). A panel of educators provided honest and informative content, however, the scope of their comments seemed to miss the psychological perspective of learning and memory.
I decided to take a look at current research in educational psychology. Here are some take-aways to develop learning in the summer and YEAR ROUND.
It is about of RESOURCES. Learning dips are often determined by socioeconomic status (SES). High SES students tend to avoid a summer slip and low SES students fall further behind. Consider what a typical summer might be like depending on resources.
Who goes to camp, museums, or possibly vacations to far-away places?
Who has access to day-time educational programs?
The same MPR program noted above found that high SES families spend about $5,000 on summer activities! These same students may miss out on additional opportunities during the school year because they are working after school or are not encouraged to join out-of-school activities.
It is about ACCESS. Researchers emphasize the need for access to knowledge rich resources over the summer (programs, technology, and books). The journal, Urban Education (2) uses the term “book deserts” to indicate living areas where children have limited to no access to books.
It is about MOTIVATION. Students need to be filled with curiosity and drive YEAR ROUND so that they can pursue resources. Consider a small child who loves searching for bugs or a youth who can tell you encyclopedic-quality baseball statistics. Students’ curiosity is silenced because of their environment. Love of learning can also be squashed during the school year by an academic focus on “test scores are best.”
It is about SHARING. Funding for community programs is limited and cannot address the needs of all students. If you are a student, reach out to a friend who may benefit from an invite to play and learn at a museum for a day. Parents and informed adults, help spread the word of camps and enrichment programs that could benefit an acquaintance. When you enroll your child, find out if you can make a donation to fund another student.
There is a need to go beyond attention-getting changes in learning trends and focus on what is being learned during the SCHOOL YEAR.
It is about SKILLS. We should broaden our definition of learning and learning focus from a score gap to a skill gap.
Educators and administrators need to rethink learning. How do we prepare students for future success? Yes, assessments of fundamentals in reading are important. No less so are skills like:
Curiosity, motivation, empathy, kindness, critical thinking, communication, wellness, life skills, and study skills (3). How are these being learned? Don’t they often get kicked aside as soft skills because they are difficult to measure?
Teams of educators must focus on equal access to education in the scope of what LEARNING should look like. After all, when many of our historically academic skills are automatized, we may never replace distinctly human abilities to create, relate, and be empathetic (4).
Angela Davis (Host). (2019). How to help your students avoid the ‘summer slide’ [Radio series episode]. With Karen Zamora (Executive producer), MPR News with Angela Davis. St. Paul, MN: MPR.org.
Neuman, S. B. & Moland, N. (2019). Book Deserts: The Consequences of Income Segregation on Children’s Access to Print. Urban Education, 54(1), 126-147