Making Things Stick

Some things are much easier to remember than others– here is an investigation explaining this and strategies to make things stick.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

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By Jessica Mui

With an upcoming exam on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, next week will be loaded with a flurry of flashcards, study guides, and textbook readings—and yet you will still be unable to remember the content. However, you can effortlessly quote countless lines from your favorite TV show.

Why do some things just “stick” while others fade even when we actively try to remember them?

Thinking back to details that you remembered more effortlessly, you may realize that they were associated with some sort of emotional experience. Any reaction, from laughter to sadness, is shown to heighten recollection of what you witnessed. Emotions stimulate the amygdala, the region of the brain which manages emotional processes, triggering the release of adrenaline. This affects the hippocampus, the brain’s center of memory function, consequently sharpening the details in memories. This is also why recollection of near-death experiences seem to be in slow motion. Because of the intensity of emotions the individual experiences, the brain processes highly dense and vivid details by causing the recollections to appear much slower than in reality. Though this is an extreme example of emotions affecting recollection detail, the bottom line is: there is a clear correlation between emotion and memory, which can be used to your advantage on a daily basis—especially in school.

Right before tests, many stress that if anyone gives them more information, they’ll forget everything they studied. This is most likely a result of them using rote memorization, where information is quickly obtained, but also quickly forgotten. Rote memorization uses repetition to help the brain retain information, often via flashcards, mnemonic devices, and outlines. The Method of Loci, or the “memory palace,” is a rote memorization technique commonly used for memorizing sequences. The method involves envisioning each term on different objects around you, going around the room and imagining the senses that would be invoked. Dating back to ancient Greek and Roman times and implemented by memory athletes today, this technique is immensely effective in the short-term because it combines visualization with spatial memory, the recollection of locations and specific routes. However, it is important to note that this method, as with rote learning as a whole, is full-fledged memorization and mostly disregards comprehension.

In reality, most of the material students learn barely cause any stimulation because they are simply notes taken in class. This is why it’s important to re-teach yourself material in a way that is interesting before jumping to memorization. Meaningful learning, built off of learning through connections with previous knowledge, leads to genuine understanding of the topic, positive feelings of satisfaction, and ultimately, better recollection.

Intentional or not, the details that “stick” to your mind are generally a result of meaningful learning. If you have memorized lines from your favorite show, it’s likely that you have watched the episode more than once, which is analogous to looking over your notes repeatedly. Connections are also made when you quote a line from the show when relevant—further instilling them into your mind.

So before you pick up the flashcards, actually think about the Romans. How were the politics and conflicts similar to those today, or even to a movie? Whether you are studying for a test or just trying to remember something, connection—both emotional and not—is key in making things “stick.”