I really know my subject – I really do… I know it inside out, but when I have to explain it, it’s so fucken difficult! But then I learned it didn’t have to be…
When I was at college, some of the more sneering students would quote and age-old adage, that ‘those who can’t, teach.’ When I was 17, I thought this a gem of wisdom. In fact, it is not. There is a huge amount we can learn from those with a lifetime of experience. The difficulty is being able to understand those experiences when we have so little of our own to compare them with and no developed road map to follow.
In truth, those that teach were there for a reason – they understood things that the rest of us had no conception of. Their experience was as precious as gold. When I found myself in that position 40 years on, my problem was not whether or not I had the balls to address the class, or even remembering what I was going to say, but putting it all into some semblance of meaningful order.
It turns out that the best way to remember stuff is to talk about it and to discuss and debate it with others. That’s what tertiary education – college and university – is all about… it’s about exchanging ideas with people who are as enthusiastic and passionate about things as you are.
Sharing information with others while it’s still fresh in the mind results in a better memory of the details and makes it easier to recall information later – even a long time later. Repeating or even just regurgitating information to others helps improve memory of key information and also the peripheral details that are usually the first to fade.
Researchers at Baylor University, Texas, investigated information recall in three groups of volunteers, each made up of 20 undergraduate student participants. Over the course of half an hour, the participants were shown 40 x 25-second film clips. The idea was to find out how well participants retained information about not only the general plot, but also the peripheral details such as sound, colour, gestures, and secondary background details.
One group was asked to tell someone about the films they’d seen soon after the viewing whilst another was given brief visual cues, like a still screenshot frame, before they had to recall the details.
Several minutes after viewing the film, some of the students were asked what they remembered. The students in another group were asked the same questions, but up to seven days later. As time passed, all the participant’s recollection of the information became less detailed, and as one would expect, the peripheral details faded from memory more quickly than the central themes.
However… those who had immediately shared the information with friends and colleagues were found to retain the best memory, recalling both central and peripheral information. This ability to actively replay or re-generate information – for example, by telling someone the particulars, as opposed to just simply re-reading the textbook or class notes and studying it again later, improves if you have talked about it. In fact a week later, memories of the movie were just as good as they were immediately after.
Talking to someone about what you’ve learned is a really effective way to remember information. Talking about learned information exercises more areas of the brain than are involved in just reading or reviewing notes.
As a musician, I found remembering musical passages was much easier after I had played them as part of the ensemble than when I learned them on their own. When I became a stage hypnotist, I practiced my lines out loud, imagining I was talking to an audience. Sure enough the memories became entrenched more quickly. Given all the pressures of live performance, especially in front of audiences that were not always, shall we say, the most well mannered, I needed to have the whole show off parrot-fashion. In other words, I needed to be able to carry on speaking and keeping the audience interested while at the same time my mind could deal with unexpected issues and problems.
Years and hears later, when I gave my first lecture, I realised that despite my well-prepared notes, I was not fluent and wasted valuable time referring to them. That first time speaking to an academic audience, I realised that winging it simply would not do! It was a learning curve. So I practiced the whole thing in chunks, and the more I talked to groups of people about specific aspects of my chosen subject, the more it began to flow – and this happened amazingly quickly.
The fact is that verbal, out-loud repetition involves many different parts of the brain. It exercises Broca’s area, responsible for vocabulary, and Wernicke’s area, which is responsible for grammar. And then there are the wholly unconscious mechanisms that turn thought into speech – the machinery that operates our mouth, our tongue, our vocal chords, and our lips, in fact everything that makes it possible to utter intelligible sounds so we are able to communicate our thoughts and ideas to others. All this activity working in unison, serves to strengthen our memory of the ideas we wish to express.
Now I wonder what other applications this philosophy might have. Certainly learning by rote in schools has been proven to be the best way when it comes to learning times tables and foreign languages. Practicing a musical instrument is very similar – practicing interminable scales and arpeggios is exactly the same kind of rote learning. But could it perhaps help people who are developing dementia or Alzheimer’s? The answer is… probably. It needs to be taken for a proper test-drive and I look forward to seeing the results of that.
Now… what was I about to say?
Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.