Seven Facts about Studying: The A-B-C of your Brain

The recordings in your brain

It is magical; that moment when a memory is created. To cut straight to the chase – when you study to remember something, the moment the word on paper is transferred into your nervous system, the concept of that word is ripped to shreds and when you attempt to recall this piece of information it is reconstructed from fragments of information scattered throughout different parts of your brain. This is how your brain processes information. This is how you learn. This explains why remembering what you study for a test is hard.

As I now have your attention, let me bust a myth. You do not remember a list in order; you may reproduce it in order, like the alphabet, but your brain does not have a filing cabinet within where you open a random drawer to retrieve a specific memory. This, and other, oversimplified models of “memory” are doing you more harm than good. In fact, you probably have little idea how your brain commits information to memory – and therefore you cannot use optimal strategies to commit information to memory.

What is the letter in the alphabet preceding P? My guess is that your brain jumped somewhere to l, m, n, O! -p. If the theory that your brain had a filing cabinet in which the alphabet was stored, in order, than you should have gone to the filing cabinet, starting with A and progressed through the information to O. Rather, your brain jumped from P and leaped back to another memory, in this case L, to then fill in the gap till you got to O. And all this in less than a second.

The same rule holds when you memorize information for a test. Trust that your brain will reason its way to the right answer by connecting the dots. Understand that all that information is not stored in one place in your brain – it really, physically is not. Rather, information is scattered acros your cortex, much like the stars are scattered across the universe.

Making the connections

Luckily, your brain can rapidly access this vast quantity of information. In fact, you can train your brain to better access information stored within it. As you train your brain, the physical structure of your brain changes. Your brain literally changes shape as you use it. Fascinating! The neuro-scientific fact is that as you study, your brain adapts. There is seemingly an infinite amount of information that can be stored in your brain.

By repeating material over and over again you strengthen something called trace-strength. In fact, when asked to recall the letter preceding P, perhaps your mind jumped straight to O. Maybe because you recited the alphabet earlier today and the recent activation of the trace made it more accesible when the electrical current racing through your nervous system fired to active the memory. Perhaps you practiced the alphabet so fervently as a child that these traces are so strong and easy to access.

Can you recite the alphabet backwards? It is hard. It is easier to recite it from A to Z. Why? Likely because that is how you learnt it in the first place. That memory has been repeated over and over again, shaping and strengthening those specific traces from A to B, all the way to Z.

Your brain adapts

As you challenge your brain, it grows stronger. Likely it is harder when you first learn about something (like neuroscience, in my case) because you do not have the memory structure within which to frame the new knowledge. In fact, you need to build that basic framework. That is the hard part. At an undefinable point, the scales tip and you easily place new information into the existing networks. In fact, it becomes easier because you can relate the new to the existing.

Remembering that A is the first letter and Z is the last letter of the alphabet is easy. What is hard is getting the other twenty-four letters in, in order. Yet with practice, you managed to do so just fine.

A matter of training

When you study something and you claim you do not remember, you are lying to yourself. Likely, you did not study at all. Reading something once and highlighting is not studying.

Reading, actively taking notes, reflecting on the information and trying to frame it in a bigger context is studying. Asking yourself questions about what you have read, discussing the material and paraphrasing it in your own words is studying. Every element described above is a part of deep processing, an element of committing information to memory. And if you are not doing these things while you study, you are selling yourself short.

What you are not taught in university

Learning is learnable. It is the fine line between behavior and cognition that determines performance – where behavior influences your ability to learn. In fact, your ability to use your brain’s tremendous capacity to store and reproduce is very trainable.

That is what the following six chapters are about. You now understand that your brain is very capable of learning, and that by studying, you literally grow your brain. What you need to learn is how to study in a way that optimizes your brains natural ability to perform these elementary cognitive tasks better. This will lead to great jumps in your study performance.

What’s the catch? Very quickly you will see that it is not your brain’s ability to learn, but rather what you do on a daily basis, that influences your performance. The catch is finding the balance between what you are capable of intellectually and what you are willing to do to utilize your intellectual potential.

This booklet is merely a guide to show you the way to that moment where a memory is created. It is up to you to make the magic happen.