Improving your brain’s ability to receive, process, store and retrieve info

Your brain is a muscle, that needs constant training. Doing so will help you retain your cognitive abilities for as long as possible, and improve on it too.

The Derek Bok Centre for Teaching and Learning at the Harvard University provides insights on how your brain’s ability to receive, process, store and retrieve info works.


“Memory is the ongoing process of information retention over time”, an article on Bok Centre reads. “It makes up the framework through which we make sense of and take action within the present”.

Current research focusses on the “dual process theory”. This refers to how your brain works with two systems at once. “System 1” refers to unconscious, routine thought processes, and “System 2” refers to conscious, problem-based thought processes. Both of these processes will provide information, store and allow us to retrieve information.

The aim is to find a way to maximise learning in a way that will reinforce the retention of facts (System 1) and build toward critical, creative thinking (System 2).

Picture:  A summary of System 1 and System 2. (Source: Upfront Analytics, 2015)

The theory in practice

Think of the first time you make your new neighbours each a cup of coffee. You think about what each person’s preference is. You carefully measure and think of each step. You need to confirm their preferences, because you got distracted by the conversation around the kitchen table.

By their 15th visit, you make their coffee, hold up a conversation and recall inside jokes from their last visit. You might have a designated Sippy-cup for the little one. To find this Sippy-cup, you reach around a blind corner cupboard without looking. It is muscle memory now. 

This is a perfect example of how a System 2 function full of focus, became an automatic, System 1 function.

This same theory in practice can be applied to any task, even the difficult ones.

How does memory work?

There are three processes in place that allow a piece of information to become a memory.

  • Encoding

“Encoding refers to the process through which information is learned. That is, how information is taken in, understood, and altered to better support storage.” We learn through what we see, hear, feel and most what we understand.

For this process to be optimal, we need to make sure our senses are performing at their best. A child that cannot see what is written on the chalk board will not understand what the teacher is referring to. Trying to figure out what is communicated, may distract one from focusing on retaining information.

  • Storage

“Storage refers to how, where, how much, and how long encoded information is retained within the memory system. The model of memory (storage) highlights the existence of two types of memory: short-term and long-term memory. Encoded information is first stored in short-term memory and then, if need be, stored in long-term memory.”

It is said that the short-term memory (STM) lasts between 15 and 30 seconds. If the memory is repeated, it should commit to your long-term memory (LTM).

“LTM has immense storage capacity, and information stored within LTM can be stored there indefinitely.”

  • Retrieval

“Retrieval is the process through which individuals access stored information. Due to their differences, information stored in STM and LTM are retrieved differently. While STM is retrieved in the order in which it is stored, LTM is retrieved through association.”

An example of STM is when you repeat a number to save on your phone, after someone else just read it out loud.

LTM is demonstrated by your ability to find your way home from work by associating landmarks, buildings and familiar streets.

Improving your recall ability

“Retrieval is subject to error, because it can reflect a reconstruction of memory. This reconstruction becomes necessary when stored information is lost over time due to decayed retention.”

A researcher called Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted an experiment in 1885 in which he tested how well individuals remembered a list of nonsense syllables over increasingly longer periods of time.

He used the results to create the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve as demonstrated below.

Picture: The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. (Source: Schaefer, 2015)

The research showed that your memory decay will depend on the time that has passed since the learning experience, and how strong the memory is.

The conclusion here is that in order to fortify the process of learning, one must improve on the encoding.

“Improve recall within a learning environment, through various teaching and learning techniques”, the Bok Centre reiterates.

Here are the recommended methods of improved learning:

  • The testing effect

“Modern research in psychology suggests that frequent, small tests are also one of the best ways to learn in the first place. The testing effect refers to the process of actively and frequently testing memory retention when learning new information. By encouraging students to regularly recall information they have recently learned, you are helping them to retain that information in long-term memory, which they can draw upon at a later stage of the learning experience.”

You can test yourself by recalling things. If you are actively trying to learn something new, this will also help you assess exactly where you need to focus more.

  • Spacing

“According to the spacing effect, when a student repeatedly learns and recalls information over a prolonged time span, they are more likely to retain the information.”

There is a reason why eight years of experience is worth more than two. You will have learned more over time repeating certain tasks, and be better at it as well. The same can be said for your child studying for a test. Allow them to start studying for their tests a few weeks before they are written, so they have ample time to repeat the information. This does not mean hours of grinding, reading through their work once every day will already help to build the basis.

This is one of the reasons they tell you to pay attention in class. You already start memorising here.

  • Interleaving

“Interleaving, is when students practice multiple related skills in the same session.”

An example of this is practising Portuguese reading skills and learning about history, by reading a history book in Portuguese.

  • State-dependent memory

“State-dependent memory refers to the idea that being in the same state in which you first learned information enables you to better remember said information.”

If you are studying for a test, try to recreate the environment you will be writing the test in. Sit at a desk, don’t look around too much, try to keep your environment quiet. You will need to focus, and try to be calm.

  • Chunking

“Chunking is the process of grouping pieces of information together to better facilitate retention.”

Think of recalling that number again. Instead of memorising the Mopani landline number as 0-1-3-7-5-5-5-5-0-0, you remember it as 013-755-5500.

  • Deliberate practice

“The final technique that students can use to improve recall is deliberate practice. Simply put, deliberate practice refers to the act of deliberately and actively practicing a skill with the intention of improving understanding of and performance in said skill.”

This might mean completing practice tests, working out more math problems, writing more essays or practising your piano skill over and over until you can read the notes and play them fluently.

  • Enforce your encoding

This is one of the best ways to improve on your learning. As mentioned in a previous article, (Learning difficulties in children link) one must find new ways to aid in learning if conventional methods are not enough.

Using flash cards or music accesses more senses. You can use coloured highlighters to enforce important text. Write things down before you forget them. Most importantly, find ways to improve your focus.

Mopani Pharmacy also offers a variety of homeopathic / natural remedies to alleviate some stress and help to keep your focused and calm. It is important to discuss the use with our pharmacists for possible contraindications and correct use.

Read more: Understanding learning difficulties in children

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