Here’s The Key To Actually Memorizing Something

Insights from Trinity College, Dublin.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

We’re taught in school that if you want to remember something you’re reading, you should highlight it. Maybe dog-ear the page, and then go back and re-read it.

But according to memory research, those methods are far from your best option.

“Exposure to information doesn’t ensure learning,” says Shane O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College, Dublin. As he tells the Irish Times, it’s all about forcing yourself to recall what you’ve read or heard — “retrieval has a greater effect,” he says.

That means asking yourself questions about whatever it is you’re studying, whether it’s materials for a big meeting or presentation or notes for an exam. Flashcards, those standbys of overachievers everywhere, are effective for much the same reason: They force you to recall and thereby engage mentally with information. Rereading doesn’t put the same cognitive demands on your brain, so you don’t learn as much.

Your brain remembers things better when it’s been taught that what you’re looking at is important to your survival, Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn, once explained to me. How do you convince your brain that something is critical to your very existence? You expend mental energy on it.

O’Mara spoke to the Irish Times as part of Trinity’s weeklong celebration of all things memory. You can read more about other memory research happening in the Irish capital here.