How to Retain Information

We are flooded with new information on a constant basis — all of the sights, sounds, and smells and sensory inputs that we find in our environment. The information that we receive through our senses is just a part of what our brains take in, and it would be easy to get overwhelmed and forget everything if not for the mechanics of how we learn. Our brains filter out the data that we don’t need in order to make sure that we pay attention to what is important, and this is a key element in our ability to remember things, both immediately and in the long term. One of the most effective ways of retaining information is by making sure that you are in a calm state of mind. When you are anxious, worried, or even bored, your brain is so busy reacting to the negativity that it is hard to remember what you have experienced. But when your stress levels are low, your brain is receptive to holding on to what it is experiencing.  This is true at the moment that you are first encountering information as well as when you are specifically studying information in an attempt to make it a permanent memory. (

Mindful meditation can improve working memory and recall

Our working memory is where we temporarily hold information that we find useful: what we find most useful or want to remember later we stow in our long-term memory. But trying to cram a lot of information in all at once can overwhelm our working memory and interfere with the process. Meditation has been shown to be an effective way of strengthening both processes. Through the process of consciously clearing our minds, we slow down the process of storing information, giving ourselves the ability to prioritize what is most important and eliminate or ignore extraneous thoughts. This helps us to retrieve it more effectively later. (The Atlantic)

Drinking coffee after learning can improve memory retention

If you’ve ever armed yourself with cola, coffee, or another caffeinated beverage before sitting down to study, you may want to rethink the timing of your consumption. A study out of Johns Hopkins University has revealed that caffeine taken immediately after learning a task has a positive effect on long-term memory, strengthening the memory and making them resistant to forgetting. Though previous studies have not shown a connection between caffeine and memory, they all tested the impact of taking the caffeine before learning. The researchers believe that the drug’s impact comes from helping with the consolidation of the memory, where previous investigations were looking for caffeine to help facilitate the process of information input. (Johns Hopkins University)

Minimize distraction, maximize focus

Do you think that studying or learning with background music helps you to concentrate? There’s a good chance that you’re doing yourself more harm than good.  According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, not only does ambient noise raise your stress levels, but it interferes with the formation of short-term memories and may disrupt the connections between neurons that are the basis of our learning and memory recall. (Scientific American)

Regular exercise improves thinking skills and boosts memories

A study done at the University of British Columbia has shown that regular vigorous exercise helps to expand the size of the hippocampus, and that people who exercise have better memory recall than those who do not. Researchers have shown that exercise helps information retention and recall in a number of ways: it reduces insulin resistance and inflammation and improves brain health and blood circulation, but it also boosts mood and reduces anxiety and distraction. And the really good news is that it’s never too late to start – people who had not exercised previously who then began a program of regular exercise showed an increase in the volume of their brains. (Harvard Medical School)

The best way to learn is by teaching someone else

We retain 90% of what we learn when we teach it to someone else. Scientists have described this phenomenon in a number of ways, including the protégé effect and the cascading mentoring program, but both revolve around the idea that when we take responsibility for educating somebody else, we are more conscientious in our efforts to learn the material correctly and thoroughly and to remember all of the details. Students who have been tasked with teaching material to another spend more time going over material, and in an example that will be all-too-familiar to members of multi-children family, older siblings often take responsibility for educating their younger brothers and sisters, and end up scoring higher on I.Q. tests. (Time)

The power of “chunking” and practice

“Chunking” is defined as breaking down a learning task into smaller, more manageable pieces of information, learning and mastering them each individually, then putting them together and practicing them that way until the process is effortless. Chunking puts what is learned into context, making it more meaningful, easier to retain and recall, but it is absolutely integral to the process that the chunks and the whole are practiced repeatedly in order for the information to be retained. Constant review of the information is essential, but so is making sure that each chunk of information that is learned is related to the previous chunk so that the information is relatable. (APA)

Resting the body and the brain helps to consolidate memory so information is retained

One of the most effective methods of retaining newly-learned information is to go to sleep shortly after being exposed to it. This is true both of semantic memory (facts about the world) and episodic memory (memories about events). A test done at the University of Notre Dame showed that 24 hours after learning something new, students who were exposed to the information immediately before going to bed for the night were better able to retrieve what they’d learned then was true of those who learned in the morning and had 12 hours of wakefulness before going to bed for the night. (University of Notre Dame)

By spacing your learning sessions, you will retain information better

Though the idea of cramming before a test may be the norm for many, studies have shown that the best way to learn and retain information is to space out our study sessions, and that larger gaps between these sessions actually improves our ability to recall what we’ve learned over a longer period of time. Studies have shown that if you only want to recall information for a short period of time, then a shorter duration between study sessions works best, but if you want to retain information over the long haul, a larger period of time between study sessions is much more effective. (Science Daily)

Chronic depression can lead to memory loss.

A collaborative global study that explored the relationship between chronic depression and long-term memory showed that the more frequently people experienced major depression, the more the size of their hippocampus shrunk. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is directly involved with forming new memories and holding on to long-term memories. The researchers learned that it is recurrent depression that causes the shrinking of the brain. The good news is that the impact is temporary and reversible: whether by increasing social interactions, taking fish oils, engaging in psychotherapy or taking anti-depressants, the connections between the cells of the hippocampus regenerate. (The Guardian)