Within the mysterious expanse of your cranium, memories are generated with the countless experiences you have, and much learning can be derived from them. Depending on the moment’s context, they can be a pleasant string of thoughts, a painful review of an experience, or recognition of words that you’ve previously read.
With holidays around the corner, and exam studying now underway, we might ask how memory and learning processes function in our minds, to ultimately help us to achieve academic success.
According to Dr. Andrew Chapman, a neurobiologist at Concordia, frequent repetition of information, such as with studying, will result in a higher likelihood that a memory is physically formed. His own research at the Center for Studies in Behavioural Neurobiology(CSBN) links the strengthening of brain cell connections called synapses to improved memory storage in the cortex and other areas of the brain.
“One thing that we found was that when we try to change the strength of the synapses in the cortex we find that in some parts of the brain you can do it very quickly…In other parts of the brain it takes several days [or] up to a week…That just fits with the idea that it makes sense to study over the long term instead of cramming for an exam,” he explains.
The idea that practice makes perfect may not seem novel, but the process which involves the building of brain matter when recalling a memory confirms that it is indeed true.
“If you use the connections [they] tend to get stronger and stronger…the more you practice a memory, the stronger the connection gets and the stronger the memory trace gets.”
With emotions of high intensity accompanying this memory, there is also a better chance for the brain to remember, adds Chapman.
“When you have a sensory experience that is sufficiently intense or meaningful, then the…connections between those cells become stronger and form a new network, or memory trace. Memory is the formation of these new memory traces.”
The actual chain of reactions that cause this end result of memory traces is a complex one, involving an impressionable experience and a resulting production of chemicals, called neurotransmitters. Although not directly involved in synaptic formation, they enhance the likelihood of connections being generated.
“One thing that we study in our lab is …dopamine and acetylcholine and what we find is these neurotransitters can promote the ability of other synapses to become stronger. We can’t say for sure but in order to form a new memory you have to have some of these other systems being activated.”
In the context of studying , this means that being interested in the topic you are reviewing releases these chemicals that improve synaptic connections, says Dr.Chapman.
“Being… interested about a topic activates[ the] modulatory chemicals, and that makes it easier to change the strength of connections that allows you to make that memory.”
Whether it is looking at how memory functions, or how other mental processes such as reading occur in the brain, a new technology called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery (FMRI ) is giving scientists a clearer picture of the mind’s activities.
At the Center for Cognitive Brain imaging at Carnegie Mellon University, Dr. Marcel Just is researching learning processes, such as reading and writing and the corresponding activity in the brain. Using FMRI, which scans the brain in a more finely tuned way than traditional MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imagery), researchers take moving pictures of brain activity of subjects who are performing mental tasks.
“It gives you a framework for understanding what each area does and how long it takes to do it, how much activity it takes to accomplish it so that the amount of activity in a particular brain area makes sense,” he said on a recent interview on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks.
All this means that during study sessions there are many areas of the brain helping you learn- but how does this translate into what studying behavior makes a student successful?
At the Centre for Counselling and Development at Concordia, learning counselor Mary O’Malley sees students with maladjusted strategies, and seeks to help by showing them the right ones. With a masters degree in education , O’Malley insists that it isn’t about memorizing but how you manipulate information that will determine perfomance on an exam.
‘One of the biggest mistakes they [students] make when they’re studying for exams is they read….What you want to be doing to get ready for a test is pulling information out, because that’s what they’re going to ask you to do on the test.”
The good news is, according to O’Malley, is that she rarely encounters those who do poorly on exams after they have studied effectively. Those few that do usually suffer from intense stress levels, she explains.
“About 95 per cent of the time anxiety is caused by poor preparation. I think they’re are 5 per cent of the time situations were students are suffering from bonafide anxiety where they had a bad experience in the past and this takes over their mind, and they have difficulty focusing to show what they know.”
In step with Chapman’s assertions that repetition is key, she insists that aquiring information must be done slowly.” Time and practice are the two most important things to build knowledge [and] to learn.”
If research on the human brain is any indication, you might want to be extra prudent about how and what you are putting into your mind while studying for exams- because after all, a mind (and it’s neural connections) are a terrible thing to waste.