Discover the science behind forgetting and conquer it3 min read

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By the time you’ve finished your next cup of coffee, you’ll forget nearly half of what you just learned. But, the good news is there are simple steps you can take to improve your memory.

WHY WE FORGET AND HOW TO CONQUER IT

Unless you have a photographic memory, you likely find it hard to remember everything you learn, even an hour or two after you learn it. Why? Research about how we remember and forget gives us a clue.

HOW QUICKLY WE FORGET

19th century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus created the “Forgetting Curve” after studying how quickly he learned, then forgot, a series of three-letter trigrams. Here’s what he discovered:

  • In the time it takes to make and drink a cup of coffee, you’ll will forget 42% of what you learned.
  • In about time it takes to watch your favorite TV show, you’ll forget 56% of what you learned.
  • During the course of a normal workday, you’ll forget 64% of what you learned.
  • In less than a week, you’ll only remember 25% of what you learned.

WHY WE FORGET

Our brains are hardwired to recall important facts. The process that determines what you remember and what you forget makes recalling every single detail nearly impossible.

Memory Decay: When you learn something new, a new memory “trace” is created. But if you don’t rehearse and repeat what you’ve learned, memories decay and fade.

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HOW TO REMEMBER

In the century since Ebbinghaus discovered the Forgetting Curve, scientists have suggested several things you can do to reverse its effects:

Sleep: During slow wave and REM sleep, memories are transferred from the temporary storage in the hippocampus to more permanent memory around the cortex

Novelty: Learning in creative or unfamiliar circumstances, or in new ways, is more memorable because it triggers additional activity in the hippocampus.

Stress: Like novelty, stressful or dangerous situations can make events more memorable. Stress helps imprint these “flashbulbs memories” into our minds for easy recall.

Spaced Repetition: 

It was Ebbinghaus who first identified the phenomenon of spaced repetition for improving memory. Since then, numerous studies have affirmed its powerful effects.

Here’s how to use spaced repetition to improve your learning:

Within a few hours of first learning something new, read your notes, adding thoughts or summaries of the notes every few lines. If you don’t have notes, reread the text or, if you’re learning online vs. a classroom, re-watch portions of the course, taking notes this time.

While it may be tempting to repeat the process as soon as you can, an important part of spaced repetition is the spacing. The first review should be quick. Each subsequent review should take place at a longer interval than the previous one.

Review everything you’ve learned, not just what you’ve forgotten. For example, if you learned a new skill from online training, watch the course again, adding to your notes to make them more complete.

Testing your memory improves retention by 20-50%. If your learning platform offers assessments or quizzes, take them to test your memory and make note of what you’ve missed for further review.

The next review should take place 3-5 days later. Then review again roughly 6-10 days after that. Add another test for better retention. After 5-6 reviews at longer intervals, what you’ve learned will be a permanent part of your memory.

This article was originally published by PLURALSIGHT

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