neuropsychology of memory and learning

Learning is classically defined as:

a relatively permanent change in behavior that marks an increase in knowledge, skills, or understanding thanks to recorded memories

It’s that change of behavior state that’s the important point of definition, but the neurological memory processes sit at the core of that.  So let’s look at what let’s that occur.

The “lego bricks” of memory

Your brain is a hugely complex organ with over 100 billion neuron’s.  Each neuron then has an associated 4-10,000 dendritic links to other neuron’s through synaptic connections.  Each synapse has a huge number of chemical neurotransmitters that exist with in it. That can then change the chemical message sent from one neuron to the next through the dendrite connection with the next neuron.  And so on to the next formed connection, and so on.

So that is:

100,000,000,000 neurons x 7,000 dendrites/synapses x ∞ neurotransmitter mix = Infinite patterns (memories)

When a memory is formed of the color ‘green’, a pattern of neuron’s fire with particular neurotransmitter settings in each synapse involved.   Every time the concept of ‘green’ is recalled (say we see something ‘green’ or someone mentions the word ‘green’) that same pattern with the same settings will fire causing us to remember the construct ‘green’.

Now, if we add a second construct, the idea and memory of what is a ‘door’ a different pattern of neurons will fire.  Thinking of a ‘green door’ will cause both pattern’s to fire and a third pathway linking ‘green’ and ‘door’ to create a ‘green-door’. This third pattern is called association as we create a new memory linking two of these building blocks of memory together.

The study of memory

As self-aware creatures of ‘meta-cognition’ (thinking about thinking) the process of memory and its support of learning has been studied….a LOT!  Accordingly there is an enormous body of scientific evidence of what we believe is going on when we create memories.  Essentially there is a three level hierarchy of memory that drives how we operate as mammals and then how we then apply memories to our higher level cognitive functions.

  1. Sensory memory – this is the sensory process of recognizing thing’s i.e. “that is food, <check if I am hungry?> <Yes I am, I can eat that>” OR “that is a snake, <snakes are scary and dangerous> <I should run away, fast!>”
  2. Short term memory – this is the area where we ‘momentarily’ store stuff while we absorb and apply it or use it in some task. Short Term Memory is surprisingly fleeting and limited in the amount of concepts we can hold in it.  Try remembering a phone number without writing it down when it is spoken to you and you’ll know how short term that can be!
  3. Long term memory – Short term memories become Long term memory through several cognitive mechanisms:
    • Repetition is a strong factor, repeatedly firing a neural pattern indicates its importance and deepens the memory;
    • Association with another memory or concept, the stronger the better (an extremely powerful memory/learning strategy);
    • Emotional state, the greater the emotional arousal, typically the stronger and deeper the memory.

After that long term memories get stronger the more each of these three factors apply when they memory is reused.

Having an understanding of how memories are formed allows us to apply that to learning situations when we come to apply new information and convert it to knowledge.  Applying that new knowledge along with our accumulated knowledge is what allows us to then think, create and innovate.

Distraction and interruption

All the above is great ideal situation stuff of course.  If you’ve ever tried to force yourself to learn something new  you know that our brain’s nicely well-ordered memory process are anything but.  The progression from sensory memory to short term memory to long term memory is incredibly fragile.

Imagine this scenario:

You’re studying a new competitive intelligence report trying to understand why you biggest competitor is crushing you in sales. As you get to the third paragraph,
In comes a text message.  You force yourself to ignore it, but nope you have to start the paragraph again,
You get an email from one of your VIP’s. Back you go to the beginning of that paragraph again….
You hear the garage door, your partner is home with lunch…man I’m hungry! Aw shoot, back to the beginning again.

Sound familiar?

Multiply that with all the other distractions occurring around you and you can see why we find it so hard to absorb new information.  In reality the process of memory is infinitely more complex than that simple scenario.  By understanding the fundamentals of memory and learning you now can see the root of the dilemma we all face.  Contemporary life makes trying to engage in real deep learning and focusing on deep cognitive work almost impossible.

Mind Maps for learning and memory

There are of course good strategies for reinforcing and structuring learning.  Mind Maps provide a wonderful whole brain methodology for studying and absorbing new memories, associating them with stored memories and reinforcing them to long term memory.  There are also a great many ‘focus techniques’ for eliminating distraction.  Using them allows you to bring focus in a controlled manner to your workflow in such a way that you can train your brain into stronger patterns of behavior.

MindMapUSA provides consulting and programs of training, coaching and consulting in Mind Mapping and strategies for more effective performance.  The courses teach globally applicable skills then reinforce with a workshops to bring the skills and knowledge to functional teams in your organization.

Please contact us to explore how we can help you:

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