Understanding Memory

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One of the perks of earning a degree in the psychological field is learning about the intriguing concept of memory.  This is beneficial and pertinent for many reasons, one of which become obvious during finals week.  The wonderful thing about having knowledge of your own brain is that learning material becomes easier when you are able to understand how exactly memory works.

Keeping this knowledge in mind, I decided to approach my preparation for finals week slightly different this year than in the past.  The first correction that I made was not to stress.  This may sound like an oxymoron, because finals are inevitably accompanied by  papers, projects, exhaustion, and copious amounts of caffeinated beverages (my personal favorite is the white mocha latte).  However, what I have learned is that stress will only lead to essentially shutting down the brain.  When I stress, specific hormones are released within the brain, which actually inhibits my ability to encode and store memory.  So how does one not stress?

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One way I eliminate stress is by sleeping.  Trust me, when I say I learned the hard way that some is better than none, especially if I can allow for complete REM cycles.  For example, one REM cycle is about 90 minutes, so six hours of sleep instead of five allows my brain to complete two full cycles of REM sleep.  Now, this may seem impossible amidst the final projects and papers that are due alongside the end of semester exams, but sleep is key because it also allows me to further encode information.  Information is actually encoded into long-term memory during sleep.  So not only does sleeping reduce stress, it also allows me to store information into long-term memory.

Lastly, as I wrapped up the end of the semester, I discovered the importance of attributing meaning and significance to the information that I was taking in.  When I am trying to memorize information, my brain will actually register the emotions evoked during encoding.  The emotions evoked will then determine the importance of the information being encoded.  So, if I find a way to actually make myself assign meaning to what I am actually memorizing, I will remember it better.  I found this lecture on TED (a corporation that sponsors a number of speakers to host educational talks) to be helpful as I was working out this idea of attributing meaning to what I encode.

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Learning about how the brain encodes truly has changed the way that I am able to comprehend material.  It is amazing to see the skills that I learn in the classroom are just as useful in my field of work as in my everyday life.