Memory is complicated

Recently a “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” came out in the U.S. This framework talked about the importance of inculcating certain “habits of mind” in students. One of these eight habits was metacognition, which they defined as the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge.

The importance of metamemory was emphasized in two recent news items I posted, both dealing with encoding fluency, and the way in which many of us use it to judge how well we’ve learned something, or how likely we are to remember something. The basic point is that we commonly use a fluency heuristic (“it was easy to read/process, therefore it will be easily remembered”) to guide our learning, and yet that is often completely irrelevant.

BUT, not always irrelevant.

In the study discussed in Fluency heuristic is not everyone’s rule, people who believed intelligence is malleable did not use the fluency heuristic. And in one situation this was absolutely the right thing to do, and in the other situation, not so much. Because in that situation, what made the information easy to process did in fact also make it easier to remember.

The point is not that the fluency heuristic is wrong. Nor that it is right. The point is that heuristics (“rules of thumb”) are general guidelines, useful as quick and dirty ways of dealing with things you lack the expertise to deal with better. Heuristics are useful, but they are most useful when you have the knowledge to know when to apply them. The problem is not the use of this heuristic; it is the inflexible use of this heuristic.

Way back, more than ten years ago, I wrote a book called The Memory Key, and in it I said: “The more you understand about how memory works, the more likely you are to benefit from instruction in particular memory skills.” That’s what my books are all about, and that’s what this website is all about.

Learning a “rule” is easy; learning to tell when it’s appropriate to apply it is quite another. My approach to teaching memory strategies is far more complex than the usual descriptions, because learning how to perform a strategy is not particularly helpful on its own. But the reason most memory-improvement books/courses don’t try to do what I do is because explaining how it all works — how memory works, how the strategy works, how it all fits together — is a big task.

But the fact is, learning is a complicated matter. Oh, humans are, truly, great learners. We really do have an amazing memory, when you consider all the things we manage to stuff in there, usually without any great effort or particular intention. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It isn’t about how much you remember. It’s about remembering the things we want to remember.

And to do that, we need to know what makes things hard to remember, or easy to remember. We need to know that this is a question about the things themselves, about the context they’re in, about the way you’re experiencing them, and about the way you relate to them. You can see why this is something that can’t simply be written down in a series of bullet points.

But you don’t have to become a cognitive psychologist either! Expertise comes at different levels. My aim, in my books in particular, and on this website, is to explain as much as is helpful, leaving out most of the minutiae of neuroscience and cognitive theory, trying to find the kernel that is useful at a practical level.

It’s past time I put all these bits together, to describe, for example, exactly when a good mood helps cognition, and when it impairs it; when shifting your focus of attention impairs your performance, and when you need to shift focus to revive your performance; when talking helps, and when it doesn’t; when gesturing helps, and when it doesn’t — you see, there are no hard-and-fast rules about anything. Everything is tempered by task, by circumstance, by individual. So, I will be working on that: the manual for advanced users, you might call it. Let me know if this is something you’d be interested in (the more interest, the more time I’ll spend on it!).

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