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Education today/Steve Patchin

Teach students how to use their memory, create a lifelong learner

April 10, 2012
The Daily Mining Gazette

Philosophers throughout history have stated that "Experience is the sum of our memories and wisdom is the sum of our experience." Therefore, "having a better memory would mean knowing more about the world, but also more about oneself."

Today's students are being challenged to learn more, retain more, and apply it more frequently than earlier generations. How can we provide them to tools to acquire this wisdom?

It has long be thought that memory decays over time. German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus studied this "curb of forgetting" by attempting to learn a series of random syllables. Through his trials, he found that after the first hour, 50 percent of them were forgotten. After the first day, 10 percent more were lost, first month saw a loss of 14 percent more after which the remaining memories began to stabilize, retaining the rest.

More than 2,500 years ago, a Greek poet Simonides found a way to retain this information by creating a "memory palace." These were areas you were familiar with, such as the house you grew up in. They were places you could recall in great detail, remembering the color, texture, shape and smell they possessed. Even emotions that you associated with each palace helped bring them to life. Items you wanted to remember, you would "store" in these palaces, providing you with a place to retrieve them from.

In London, cab drivers take an exam entitled "The Knowledge" to earn a cab license. The test quizzes them on the shortest routes between point and what important places lay on these routes. They must memorize 25,000 streets and 1,400 important places. Only three in 10 pass the exam. In 2000, an English neuroscientist studied these cabbies and found that the right posterior hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in navigation, was 7 percent larger in these cabbies than normal folks. These drivers did not have advanced schooling or were thought of as scholars, but had constructed their own "palaces."

In 1991 Tony Buzan, a 67-year-old British educator and founder of the World Memory Championship, created a defined method to increase memory at any age. His work treats the brain as a muscle. He successfully trains mental athletes to engage their brains in mentally mapping these memories, helping each person attach emotion and valuable detail to information to be stored. A recent study conducted MRIs on successful mental athletes and found that activity in the parts of the brain involving visual memory and spacial navigation were extremely active in comparison to normal students, supporting this mapping method. Buzan trains others to teach these research proven methods to middle and high school students to help them scholastically.

Neuroscientists have found that the hippocampus part of the brain is involved in processing these new experiences, then sending them on to the neo cortex for long-term storage and retrieval. Those trained in the mentioned memory techniques have the ability to place these new memories directly into the neo cortex for long-term storage and retrieval.

We are continually placing increased emphasis on students to pass high stakes tests, measuring what they have learned, their memory. If we are to continue this trend, we will need to focus on giving them tools to retain this information, allowing each of them to construct their own memory palaces.

Editor's note: Steve Patchin is the director of the Center for Pre-College Outreach at Michigan Technological University.



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