Managing your brain to optimise learning and memory: Some notes

Human brain NIH
Human brain NIH (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a short popular media piece I wrote a while back for the Memory Lab exhibition (2011) on managing your brain to optimise learning and memory. I dug it out after receiving a few emails on this topic regarding study advice.

There are two general things you can do – manage your lifestyle, and manage your learning.

Managing Your Lifestyle:

It seems obvious, but it is worth saying again: getting lots of good quality sleep, regular aerobic exercise and eating properly are essential for the good functioning of brain and body. Sleep helps consolidate the topics learned during the course of the day, and helps with recall the next day. Avoiding caffeine and other stimulants for the three or four hours before bed will help sleep quality too. Aerobic exercise reduces stress levels and helps the smooth functioning of the parts of the brain concerned with memory and attention. Eating a good diet with plenty of fruit and veg, and keeping away from the sugar spikes caused by lots of soft drinks is vital for the good functioning of brain and body.

Managing Your Learning:

The rules again are straightforward: when in the classroom or studying at home, pay effortful attention – in other words, concentrate. This is tiring, which is why you need good quality sleep to refresh the brain!

Learning to concentrate is a skill, and like all skills, needs practice. You need to rehearse the material regularly, and take systematic and organised notes that you can refer time and again. After learning your material, practice taking tests and exams, as doing this regularly and systematically will improve your exam performance.

Doing some study often (say every day) is much better than doing a bout of intensive of study infrequently (say once a month). In other words, two hours of study a day seven days a week is much, much, much better than fourteen hours one day per week (this is known as distributed practice).

Having a regular and organised routine with a quiet space to study in is vital. Keeping a record of the work you have done, and comparing it to what you need to do is a good idea too, as this will give you an idea of your progress. Having a plan for tackling the material for exams and sticking to it is vital – but this plan should be realistic and adjusted as circumstances demand. Don’t spend excessive time on topics you enjoy, and not time on topics you don’t – be sensible about studying across subjects.

The more you learn, the easier it is to learn – as the theories and facts you are learning have something to stick to in your brain (what psychologists call a ‘conceptual scaffold’ or ‘schema’). And over time what you are doing is learning to learn!

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Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist

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