My crumbling palace of memory…

They say elephants never forget…. lucky elephants, what is their secret I wonder…


I think I’m not alone in sometimes feeling a bit ‘unstuck’ when it comes to memory. I am by no means old (unless I am in a room with undergraduate students, then I find myself the only person with a pen and paper and sounding like my father referencing ‘that cloudy thing’), but more and more I struggle to recall information, words, facts, figures just when I need them.

Maybe I am being dramatic, but as someone who has worked hard all her life to be ‘knowledgeable’ these moments of blankness are alarming to say the least. 

So it was great timing when I heard about a ‘Making Learning Stick’ seminar event where I hoped I would finally find out exactly why this happens and stop it happening again. I was dismayed to find it is not that simple.  As with all things worth having, memories, it seems, are hard to hang on to. This is because memories are hard to encode into our brains and consolidate in the first place and more often than not, we don’t take the time to do this properly.  When we think about remembering something we are really only referring to our ability to ‘recall’ it, which in turn is only as good as our ability to encode and consolidate it in the first place – are you still with me? Good. 

So, therein lies my new big question; where should I start work, my encoding, consolidating, or recall? It sounds like I am building the Matrix! 

Apparently, when we encode our memories they are filtered by what we consider important at the time. That makes sense to me, we take things in ‘in the moment’ – this also helps me understand why my husband and I remember completely different things when we see the same play… this will give me a new found patience in those post-curtain conversations. But it remains that it is impossible to know how a piece of information is going in, and what neural pathways (or something like that!) are being created with the memory for me to access it again in the future. 

One technique is to try to create as many ‘sensory’ associations as we can for each piece of knowledge. For example, using a certain aroma for a topic, which then means that smelling this aroma again could take us back to that learning point. Clever brain!

Another technique we tried was palaces of memory, where you ‘allocate’ a learning point (or an item, from a list for example), to a place (for example, your kitchen or hallway). Then when you walk through that space again, in real life or in your mind, you are reinforcing the learning point you wish to ‘stick’. My coat stand will now forever be the brain stem, my long-term memory (hippocampus) is in the den, and my habit formation and emotional processing are done by my basal ganglia in the garden. Who knew!

Equally important to encoding memory properly is consolidating it. This is most effectively done at night while we are sleeping or during some other period of quiet relaxation. Taking the time to process our new points of knowledge at a time when we are not distracted by new stimuli gives our brains the chance to turn this into solid synaptic coding, or hardwire it into us if you will. Great news, I’m good at sleeping. 

Finally, recalling. This is using any of the sensory cues we used to encode the memory, to recall it, smelling the same aroma for example to trigger a thought or learning point. Great you might think, well unfortunately we can suffer from what is delightfully called ‘graceful degradation’. Graceful degradation means we lose neurones, and by extension lose ‘access’ to the memory through that sensory pathway. This reinforces the need for more than one way ‘in’. Thinking this over I would certainly prefer if my problem were with recall, since it is far scarier to think the knowledge never went in in the first place! 

Final tip, if you re-read this in three hours and whilst simultaneously riding a bike or jogging, you will remember every word… if you want to that is! Research shows that raised heart rate and re-learning or spaced practice (3 hour intervals) are the best practices for making learning stick. 

Either way what is sure is that for effective encoding and recall of memories it really does matter how much we want to learn that information in the first place. This is good news for someone like me, who really WANTS to learn, and also makes me feel less bad about forgetting those pesky physics formulae that I simply HAD to know at the age of 16 but have been of no use since…

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