This blog is the first of six installments in the “Learning and Memory” series that investigates the science behind learning. Each blog is a bite-sized version of articles written by Amplifire’s chief research officer, Charles Smith. To read the full article, follow the link to “The Psychology of Learning.”

What if we could hack our learning process so that we could learn faster, remember better, and forget less? To achieve optimal brain function, we would first have to understand how learning works.

Immediately, one might imagine a pattern of neurons and firing synapses, but the process is not that matter of fact. Humans have evolved to learn in a selective way that specifically benefits our continued existence – and subsequent dominance. This relies on many external and behavioral influences that affect how information is stored in our brains.

Although we navigate our whole lives through our brain, we fail to totally understand how to maximize its potential. The research outlined in “The Psychology of Learning” – a collection of psychology and neuroscience principles – sheds light on the mysteries of the brain and can help to optimize the way we learn and remember.

How learning works

Let’s think of the brain as a filing cabinet. This extended visual metaphor will serve to explain why and how memories (or “files”) are organized, stored, used, or thrown away – or, in terms of brain operations: encoding, storage, retrieval, and forgetting.

Understanding encoding

Encoding is the process of converting sensory inputs from the world around us into a format that can be stored within the 100 billion neurons of the human brain. To do this, humans associate incoming information with similar, previously learned information. This forms a memory trace, or stored patterns of neurons bound by their synapses.

In filing cabinet terms, humans would file a document or information according to a system – such as, filing by last name, subject, year, etc. – that highlights relevant context that will make locating that file easy in the future.

Understanding storage

Storage is more intricate than we originally thought. It was first believed that memories were stored, in full, in a specific place in the brain. Scientists have since discovered that a memory is distributed over many sensory pathways at various locations. For example, if you remember you ate an orange for breakfast, the information about the color is stored in the vision region, the taste in the flavor processing region, and texture in tactile.

So, the filing cabinet just got a bit more complicated – but exponentially more effective due to the sheer amount of information that is recorded (that we can now pull from).

Understanding retrieval

Retrieval (or remembering) is tracing the information you need – like the elements that make up the whole memory of the orange – and reassembling it for use. When you need information from a file, you recall the criteria you stored it with and locate the information you need.

There are several understood methods of retrieval:

Cues: are when sensory information prompts a memory. For example, when you use landmarks to remember where you parked your car, you use cues. If you were in a rush and didn’t pay attention to your surroundings, you may have a tough time finding your car.

Signal strength: Sometimes, pathways to memories are stronger or weaker for one reason or another. The result is the phenomenon humans recognize as certainty or uncertainty. For stronger paths (highly associated memories), we feel more certain. For weaker paths (less associated memories), we feel unsure.

Dual-process: Dual-process model of memory is comprised of familiarity and recollection. The immediate sense of certainty or lack thereof is called familiarity. Recollection requires more effort and involves calling forth details to remember the particulars of an experience.

Understanding forgetting

Forgetting is like losing a file. Perhaps we get distracted while storing a file and label it incorrectly, or put it in the wrong place, or misplace the file altogether. Without effectively establishing a memory trace, that file is lost. Moreover, if we file too many things in one category, it can be hard to find a specific file among the many.

Trace decay: A memory trace decays as synapses weaken and disappear with disuse. If you never pull anything from a certain area of the filing cabinet, you might forget something is even there.

Interference: occurs when memory traces that have overlapping characteristics become confused with other traces. In a phenomenon known as cue-overload, too many traces are attached to a particular stimulus and the memory becomes saturated.

But, why does forgetting happen in the first place? Wouldn’t it be beneficial if we could remember everything? In the case of Solomon Shereshevsky, a man who was born with the remarkable ability to recall anything and everything, flawless memory was debilitating, according to his neurophysiologist. Shereshevsky was paralyzed by the constant flood of memories at the cue of even the most mundane stimuli.

Although the ability to remember everything is not the pinnacle of brain function, people still yearn for assurance that they’ll remember what they want to remember. While there is no way to guarantee you’ll remember all the information you studied for a test, there are ways to increase your chances.

So, what is the best way to learn?

The best ways to learn are extrapolated from the natural functions of cognition. These five psychological triggers are the best way to “hack” the learning process and make more information stick in the brain.

  • Repetition – The process of repeatedly taking in the same information staves off forgetting by signaling that because this information is showing up again, it must be important.
  • Elaboration – By building wider associations of incoming information with older information in the mind, or elaborating, the brain builds a bigger memory trace. Thus, one is more likely to be able to recall this information in the future.
  • Emotion – Emotion attributes value to incoming information, thus making it more likely to stick in your mind. Psychologists have called feelings “judgements of learning,” which deepen the relevance of new memories.
  • Attention – Heightened attention to incoming information reduces the possibility of interference and assigns value.
  • Retrieval – Studies have shown that the mere act of remembering, or retrieving a memory, strengthens that memory trace. This is one of the more powerful methods of learning.

Later in the series, we’ll go into greater detail about these learning triggers and how employing them in learning situations can create memories that stick.

Interested in diving deeper into this subject? Check out the full research article “The Psychology of Learning” for more cognitive science discoveries, theories, and scenarios.

From the beginning, Amplifire has relied on innovative brain science to guide its product development to create the most effective learning and training solution, perfectly tailored to the way the human brain works. Learn more about how Amplifire helps people learn better and faster by checking out a demo.