A Mind is Not a Palace

Imagine if you never forgot a thing. Ever. It sounds cool, but when you think about it, our brains aren’t equipped to be giant vaults of information. Unless you’re Sherlock Holmes working that mind palace technique, most of us only retain important information and significant memories. 

In school and while studying, there’s so much emphasis on memorization. So if our brains don’t remember everything yet we’re supposed to remember most of what we study, is there a middle ground?

Four penguins on an iceberg. One is falling off the iceberg. Illustration.
Like penguins on an iceberg, only so much fits in our brain. When we take in new information, we sometimes push other things out.

Memory Making Basics 

Sure, Instagram and Facebook help keep our memories fresh, but your brain actually exhibits a physical change when you make a memory – an engram – which is a trace of that mental moment. Scientists Sheena Josselyn and Paul Frankland put it this way:

“The prevailing view is that the formation of an engram involves strengthening of synaptic connections between populations of neurons…This increases the likelihood that the same (or similar) activity pattern within this cell assembly can be recreated at a later time.”

When your brain is making a memory, there are physiological changes taking place. Then, when your brain is trying to access that memory, it searches for those connections to the engram. 

Why do we forget things?

There are two popular (and debated) theories on why our memory fails us: Decay vs. Interference. Decay theory is just what it sounds like – our memories decay over time. Interference theory tells us that our memories fade when other information takes their place. 

Some neuroscientists believe that our brains actively forget tidbits of information on purpose. In many cases, a specific event will be remembered more generally to promote broad learning of a stimulus vs just one single piece of knowledge about it. 

The example neuroscientist Maria Wimber gives is getting bitten by a dog. If our memories never generalized or lost some details, you would only associate dog bites with that one dog at that specific dog park. In reality, most people would associate all dogs with the potential of a bite. 

How are memory and forgetting related to studying? 

Back to our earlier point about traditional studying and fact retention (like remembering the Battle of Waterloo was in 1815, or that carbon’s molecular mass is 12.0107 u), there’s research that shows that both your study environment and your study patterns affect your ability to remember, forget, and then actually learn information. 

Context Effect

Context Effect is when the context in which you learn something directly affects your ability to recall that information. Context Effect most commonly refers to the environment. 

For example, imagine doing all your chemistry learning and studying in the same room, then later taking a test in that room. Your context while you study and learn is not varied. You’d likely do well on the test, but what if you have to take another test later on in a different room? Odds are, you wouldn’t do as well. 

Should Context Effect change how I should study?

Yes. In a study (pun intended) about memory and environmental context, the researchers found that when you switch things up while studying, overall recall improved. So instead of only studying in your room or the library, it’s better to study in different places and at different times. Switch up your snacks or change the music you listen to.

When you study a subject within several different contexts or environments, your brain learns to associate that information with a broader array of things. Studying and then re-studying in different spots also makes it more likely that you’ll be able to recall this information better in the long term. 

Spacing Effect

While talking about more impactful studying habits, we have to also mention the Spacing Effect. It’s just what it sounds like – you space out the times when you study a specific topic. So rather than only studying biology on Mondays and chemistry on Tuesdays, space your topics out in smaller intervals over more days during the week. 

Spacing directly goes against the very popular study method of cramming. Yes, cramming can be effective on test day, but will you remember that information down the line? Probably not. You can learn more about the perils of cramming here. 

Study, forget, study, remember. 

Learning is more nuanced than straight memorization, although there’s a lot of information about how memory is affected by things like sleep and the five senses. Brains that learn well are active and adaptive to different situations.

As Tom Sigfried states in his article, “Forgetting is essential, some researchers now argue, because the biological goal of the brain’s memory apparatus is not preserving information, but rather helping the brain make sound decisions.”

“... the biological goal of the brain’s memory apparatus is not preserving information, but rather helping the brain make sound decisions."
Tom Sigfried

Decision making is a crucial brain function that plays a huge role in our ability to learn. Study methods that treat the brain as a thought partner rather than an information repository are ultimately always more effective in the long run.