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.

The reading myth – busted

The Student Achievement ProgramYou are not a filing cabinet! An interesting, brief article today. Even though the results were somewhat surprising, when I connect it to everything else I think I know about learning, here is what I think:

Depending on how you are tested, the way you study influences the test result, making learning a different matter entirely from academic performance.

If you are interested in learning and understanding, then spending time organizing and connecting information in your brain is the most effective strategy you can follow.

Your brain simply is not a library in which you can shelf books in order, to retrieve them in alphabetical order. Rather, it is a vast network of content like the internet and you can access most of this information by linking from one piece to another.

If you want to learn, to remember, and to apply what you have learned, putting information into a context you create matters. Relating new knowledge to which you already know is key, but you can only do this upon reflection (whether you reflect while you read or (right) after you finish reading, depends on your personal style).

We have already talked about deep processing and on using your brain’s strengths; in a way these are organization strategies. I think we have been drilled to think that organization  is synonymous to hierarchy. It isn’t.

The Student Achievement ProgramTrunks and leafs. If you were to sum up the parts of a tree, would you start at the bottom and work your way up; hierarchically from roots to crown? Or does an image of a tree come to mind from which you can associate the different parts you know (squirrel nests included!)? I bet its the second; because that is the easiest way for us to think. Why mind mapping is such a great tool to use when you study? It’s a summary in a language your mind understands.

Organization means putting things into your mind in such a way that you access the information and put it to good use. Regurgitating the the names and years of rule of Roman Emperors is not a useful feat of memory in every day life. But if you are trying to understand how the debauchery of Roman Emperors, or people in power in general, is related to the demise of an empire, perhaps being able to associate your way to a name such as Caligula, and examples of his excesses, can aid you in illustrating your case.

(We’ll talk more about metaphors and why they are so useful in learning at another time…)

To save time tomorrow, you have to spend some time today. Put your mind to work; learning is not like watching t.v., ok?! You don’t laugh when cued and switch to the next channel when you get bored. Be involved and take some time to work with your brain and pick any, but at least 2, of the following things to do when learning:

  • paraphrase what you read in your own words
  • ask yourself: What do I know about this topic already?
  • answer questions about the material after reading it
  • make mini mind maps of key terms and their descriptors
  • aggregate those mini maps into a large map outlining the main topics
  • build your framework of understanding, connecting what you know about the topic

Just remember: learning is not reading. Reading is a first step in learning. And now that you know what the other person thinks about something, find out what you think about it. 

Afterthought. As I changed the title to the blog to: Reading Myth – Busted, a thought crossed my mind, and I really want to share it.

We have all met someone who seemingly did not read all the material thoroughly, yet simply could reason her way to an answer. Could it be that this person had actually mastered the organisation of new information in such a way that she could quickly associate what she read to what she knew and therefore seemed to spend less time learning, when in fact, the learning was almost automatic? Just a thought…. 

Time matters

The Student Achievement ProgramIt is quite simple. An economist could say time is a scarce resource. A businessman would say time is money. A life coach may say time is emotion. But what do you say? I have all the time in the world? Think again – you have got as much time as you have. That’s it. How you spend your time, on what, with whom and where matters.

Inevitably students in my programs will tell me about their time; there are too few hours in every day to get all the work done; it takes forever to read certain chapters (or books…), not enough time today – but in two weeks I will have more time.

These remarks always make me smile, in a good way. It is as if there is a sudden realization that the concept of time has changed overnight. But every remark hides the thought that it is the amount of available time that is the problem. That is strange, because you have had the same twenty-four hours in day for every day of your life! Not a day has gone by where you did not face the fact that the rotation of the earth in relation to the sun took approximately twenty-four hours, providing some hours of daylight and a some hours of starlight.

No revolution that changed the universe took place – at least not the universe in this reality. In your own universe, the world you experience in your mind, something has changed. Suddenly, demands are being made on your time, demands you will learn to handle over time. Demands that will help you grow. But at the start, just like any beginning, the change is confusing, challenging and since you may have no direct response to it, a bit daunting.

And as with other things, you will learn to manage the increased demands in ways that will move you forward and bring you closer to your goals in university.

Inevitably, the question arises on how to get more done in less time. Well it takes time to develop a skill, such as studying. Seeking an escape into speed-reading, mind mapping as a shortcut or skipping-chapters-and-reading-slide-decks is actually quite counterproductive; speed reading, mind mapping and lecture slides are tools, like a hammer. And a hammer is only as good as the carpenter who wields it.

The Student Achievement ProgramYou will become efficient and effective with your time. Two realizations are important in this process.  The first is understanding on which activities you are spending your time. The second is learning how you can optimize the time you spend on these activities.

How do you understand what you are spending your time on? Keep track of your time. Do you use an agenda? An agenda is a marvellous tool that helps you work into the future. If you take last week’s agenda and reflect on it day to day, looking at what you planned to do, what you did and what you accomplished in that time, then you can learn.

The second step follows the first almost intuitively; as you reflect you will notice where time is being lost and you will, especially if you have many things that need doing, start to think about spending your time more effectively; by applying one or more tools in you studying and learning repertoire.

The process of planning is useful, be it solely as a mental exercise. Your ability to think things through is your ability to learn and grow. Managing your time is as essential a tool as comprehensive reading in being an effective learner. When you spend too much money on beer during the week, the weekend sucks. Let me say that again: When you spend too much time drinking beer during the week, the weekend sucks.

Get it? Time is valuable, be mindful of it. Money you can always make more of; time is really limited. And thinking about what you spend your time on, making choices between what is important to you, that is a skill that will reap rewards in your studies.

Take a look at last week’s agenda: see anything you want to do different?


Source Image Roger Federer/Rolex

Source Image  Agenda

Why MindMap?

The Student Achievement ProgramHow do you increase your ability to recall memories? You have a creative mind. It perceives many things, every day – and processes them quickly. Memories are stored in vast quantities in your brain; so many that you simply cannot recall them all consciously; and this is probably a good thing. Your mind creates connections, or associations, between different memories. Some associations are strong, some associations are weak. And any association can be made.

The associations we are discussing here are not Pavlovian in nature. The associations are the connections between different memories in your brain; the connections between information stored in your mind. When you strengthen the connections between memories, you make it easier to remember. How do you do that? Repetition.

What do you repeat? Your brain is stimulated by colors and images. Marketeers prefer colorful The Student Achievement Programposters because these are remembered better; children love to draw with colorful markers or crayons; and technology firms are working hard to produce amazing screen displays for your computer, smartphone and t.v. All because we love colors!

We also have a great deal of ease understanding images. Instantly we recognize the ladies or gents room by the image, anywhere in the world. The logo of certain brands have become such powerful images, and if I ask you to think of a duck in a sailors’ suit, you might think of Donald. So why did we ever start making lists instead of drawings? Colorful images stimulate our brain, yet we work with them less and less. While we try to remember more and more.

Memorization. When you want to memorize a definition, usually you find a short paragraph defining it, which you try to commit to memory: “Memory acquisition is the process of committing information to memory, structured in such a way that recall through trace strength can be facilitated through practice.”

Now, if you have any idea what that abstract descriptions means, that is good. But I am sure you don’t want to spend too much time trying to memorize it. At least, not as it is written above. Here’s why; the definition Memory acquisition in itself has three subterms at least: processing, structure and recall. Each these aspects are complex, but understandable. Put together, they give you a pretty good idea of how you can boost your recall when reading any text. And that is a long piece of text to remember. Associations are easier to remember, and increase the likelihood that you will remember the entire concept.

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The idea behind mindmapping is that you can create the associations with the main topic you want to learn and visualise them. Not only through lines, but by attaching images of the terms to the associations, you can construct the storyline your mind will follow to make remembering easier.

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It is far morel likely that you will remember the distinctive aspects related to memory acquisition in this way. And now you can build on each aspect by branching out a bit further, building the relationships between the concepts as you go along. From perception to forgetting, you can build an understanding of memory acquisition easily and quickly using mindmaps because working in this way stimulates your brain in the way it likes to remember information.

So is this a basic learning skill? If you are interested in mastery, it is. See, your brain needs some structure between information for it to make sense, and it is terrible at memorizing lists (when you use the memory palace, you will see that you are applying elements of memorization through association). Bringing building associations into your learning routine will help you remember. When you try to remember, your thoughts will jump from node to node in your mind, searching for the right connections.That is why an image, or a sound may trigger a memory you did not even know you had: somewhere an association exists between the two.

Take some time to practice summarizing paragraphs, chapters and definitions through mindmaps; as with any learning skill it takes some time to learn and get comfortable with, but the benefits to your learning and long term remembering are worth it.

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Branch out as much as you want – that is what your brain does!

“In the first place”; where did it come from?

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World Memory Championship

Have you read Joshua Foer’s “Moonwalking with Einstein”? Then you might have an idea of the answer to this question. In his recount of his journey to become the champion at the U.S.A. Memory Championship, Joshua Foer refers to the memory palace, or the method of loci.

Do you remember when Dropbox was not available to store all your files? Or when Evernote was not present to help you record and organize your thoughts? Perhaps you have wondered how the great orators of ancient Greece and Rome, such as Cicero, remembered and passed on their brilliant speeches?

There are hints in history that in a time when the skill of mastering memorization was a standard strived for by men and appreciated by society, masters of memorization used a technique named the method of loci, or the memory palace. By using the power of your visual-spatial memory, and your imagination, you are able to remember more than you think. The good news: you will not need an internet connection or an app to use that information.

Fascinating learning tool. I find the memory palace fascinating because I believe that when you apply it in certain situations to recall exact lists or items in a model, it is an extremely powerful tool in your learning toolbox.

More than this, however, if you apply the technique correctly you are increasing your learning in two ways:

  1. You are deeply processing the information through images, colours, words and associations
  2. You are making it easier to repeat the information, making it easier to access when you stop using the technique

You are also helping your ability to recall in one very important way:

  1. Strengthening associations with information increases your ability to recall; memories build on memories.

Surely you can see why this can be handy on say, a multiple choice test. That is why for me the memory palace seems to work positively two ways: it aids your learning and helps you perform on certain types of tests.

But it is not a quick fix or an ideal solution to everything; the memory palace does not make you smarter – it lets you use a your brain a bit more effectively.

How does the memory palace work? Can you recall the lay-out of the home you spent most of your time in when growing up? Can you, in your mind, walk from the front door to the attic room; the relative location of the master bedroom and the bathroom?

You have a good visual-spatial memory. Why that is, is a guessing game, but the interesting thing is that your visual-spatial memory can help you organise memories. If in your mind can walk through your home from the front door, through the hallway, to the living room, into the bedroom and to the bathroom, you can remember a four-item list in order, by heart for an indefinite period of time. Nearly perfectly.

The second part of the technique is a bit trickier – and requires practice and dedication (like everything else in life); you must to create memorable images of whatever it is you are trying to remember. And memorable is strange, unique, colorful, out of place, abnormal, or lewd. Think of it as the set and cast of Tim Burton movie in your mind. You get the picture.

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Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

By combining your natural ability to associate images to memories and remember the lay of the land, you can create memory palaces which will boost your ability to recall information drastically.

What’s the catch? It takes time. As with everything in life, there is not quick fix to committing things to memory. Any skill increases through repetition, so you will get better at creating list images and storing them in your memory palaces as you apply this technique more often; but it is an acquired skill and thus repetition is key.

By association. You engage in real learning, and make it fun in the process. Building your memory palace means that you are relating new information to existing information in your head. You tend to conjure images of familiar things, forcing yourself to search for meaningful connections. This is a cornerstone of the deep approach to learning.

This associative thinking is also the root of the term “In the first place of the memory palace…where you find the image you created which connects to the associations with the memory you want to recall. As you walk from place to place in your memory palace, you find more images and connect these images to the memories you want to recall.

You may not be able to memorize a paper or chapter word for word in this manner, nor is that the point. You can  memorize the main topics of any chapter and trust your memory’s powers of association to guide you to the correct information inside your brain.

Why we stopped trusting our brain? I have no clue. What I do know is that  when you learn to trust your brain’s amazing power for remembering, and understand that through associations and with repetition your brain will increase the likelihood of you remembering what you want to remember, you will use your brainpower more effectively.

You won’t score higher on an IQ test, yet likely you will improve your GPA. But in the last place, all though probably most important fact of this all, you will learn more, more quickly. And that is always worth it.

Driving east, looking for a sunset…

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On Target

It works. Let’s start there. Goal setting helps you focus your actions to accomplish that goal. Fact is that goals increase your performance, especially when you are setting yourself tasks. If goal setting is a part of your daily life when you are studying, you accomplish two things:

  1. Every day you will know what to do
  2. Every day you can measure your progress

We all understand why this helps your performance. When you start the day knowing what you want to get done, you don’t need to spend any time figuring out what needs to get done, you can immediately focus on how you are going to complete the task. That saves you a lot of time and decision making effort.

In other words, you become more efficient, in both your time and your activities.

You also know the starting point at the beginning of the day; what tasks did I set myself today? Looking back at this starting point gives you direct feedback on your performance, another key element in both motivation and learning.

Just do it. If a simple tool like this can save you so much time and effort, are you doing it every day? At least on the days that you study, right?

But just doing it seems to be the hard part. That is where personal leadership, your ability to coach and move yourself towards your goals, becomes important.

Goals setting is an easy skill to acquire. Rather than turning your life into a set of to do’s or tasks, think about your long term vision, the bigger picture, for example:

“In three years I want to graduate from my bachelors degree.”

This goal is clear enough for a long term goal: three years, graduate, bachelors degree, and gives you enough direction to focus your activities per term:

“My bachelor consists of 9 terms; in order to graduate in three years, I need to pass all courses in every term, starting today.”

The breakdown of the long vision into actions you can take today and in the near future are crucial steps in goal setting; graduation is far away, term 1 is now.

You can now connect your long term vision, through your understanding of what you need to do, to a short term vision:

“I will pass the three courses in term 1, and I am aiming for a score of 75/100 on average over the three course.”

The next question you ask yourself is: what do I need to do to pass the three courses in term one? Per course, you can break down these tasks into weekly and daily actions; making your progress in learning measurable for yourself.

Certainly if you do this every day during a term, consciously or unconsciously, you will finish your courses and pass your exams easily.

That makes sense. It sure does! Certainly you understand it, but do you know it? To me, to know means that I do not only get the concept but apply it to my daily life; not in everything mind you (balance people, balance!) but when I need to get things done, and done properly, goal setting is a great tool.

It ties into your motivation psychology, and the link is very simple. If I say, Let’s run a marathon in two months, you might say: Are you crazy! But if I say, lets go for a 30 minute jog, 3 times a week, you might say: sure, I can do that.

Once you start jogging for thirty minutes, something changes. After 4 or 5 jogs, you can jog for 45 minutes, maybe even break into a run for a bit. After three weeks of jogging, you notice you are going faster and your general fitness seems to improve.

If then I say, lets practice to run a10K run, you might say: sure, I can actually train to do that. And so the virtuous cycle moves you forward.

Drawing the bigger picture, like running a marathon, is helpful, because it gives you a sense of direction: That is why I am putting effort into this. But breaking down the big picture into smaller steps and realizing that taking these steps brings you closer to the big picture, that is what will keep you going until you get there! Or at least get close to where you wanted to be.

Going course, by course, term by term, is like going kilometer by kilometer in a run. Every step, every chapter, brings you closer to the finish line.

Some people are driving east looking for a sunset. Setting a top three of things that you want to get done every day is easy. Following through on them is something you can learn to do. Connect the three things you get done every day  to what you want to accomplish in life, and you will find a lot of energy, every day again, to keep going at it – even when things get tough.

Goal setting makes sense to me for a number of reasons. When was the last time you looked at your to do’s for today in terms of the bigger picture for your student life?

P.S. Obviously the sun sets in the west…