Learning to learn again

[a personal essay]

When I was a child I would try to improve my memory by looking at my nightstand for a minute and then shutting my eyes and trying to name every object that was there.

I’d do this everywhere. In shops, at the kitchen table, in the garage while my mother was getting the car MOT’d.

I’d read about this technique in a book when I was 13, found it impressive, tried it out, and actually…it worked. 

At least I think it did. 

I have a better memory for places or people than my husband and I attribute it almost entirely to this childhood practice (lolz). I do however seem to lose things more often so, there’s that.

Anyway, it was around the same time that my cousin and I were in training to be spies. We regularly did mental exercises like the nightstand one so that we’d both be 007 when we grew up.

The memory palace

I read a lot.

I read anything I could get my hands on.

I still do, but at a slower pace. Life seems to fill up the cracks nowadays.

In one of the Hannibal Lecter books (in fact, Hannibal), I read about a thing called a memory palace, and seeing as I was doing my Junior Cert in school at the time, this sounded like just the ticket.

Some people would argue that I probably shouldn’t have been reading Silence of the Lambs when I was 14 but it’s made me the obviously amazing person I am today. Fact.

The memory palace, sometimes also called the method of loci, is a mnemonic device adapted in ancient Greece and Rome so that people could, well, remember stuff. 

Basically you build a palace in your mind and every object, every space, every room in it is attached to a memory or a string or set of memories. 

You go through the palace in the same order each time you visit, and everything stays neatly in place that way.

If you’re interested in reading more about building a memory palace, go ahead and make one.

The thing was though, that Dr Lecter lived in his palace sometimes, and I tried to do the same. I’d advise against that.

How to study effectively

We were taught how to study in school: writing things down made you remember things more than just reading them.

Teaching someone what you’ve learned made you remember everything the best. They suggested we use a teddy or stuffed toy and try to teach them what we were learning: even this would help.

And I’m sure it did. 

They also told us to exercise and relax. 

And to use some essential oil on a handkerchief while you were studying and then smell that handkerchief during the exam because it would aid memory. 

Also that the place we studied was very important. 

Also to not study in our PJs.

The Mozart effect

There was advice about the right music to listen to while you were studying in order to enhance your learning. A lot of what was suggested at the time was Mozart (in many places, it still is).

I never found that it helped my concentration though: I found the music too pervasive.

I played piano (mostly Schumann & Bach but also Mozart) a lot then, and whenever I listened to classical music while studying I’d just be listening to the counterpoint or the string section.

Anyway it’s since been proved that music only helps you concentrate if you’re doing the right kind of work at the time. 

So there goes that theory.

The science of learning

I did a little digging on the science of learning for this article.

Mistakes are essential, is one of the biggest breakthroughs that researchers in the field of learning always mention. Which is good because I learn how things work by breaking them.

There’s also the fact that brains operate on the ‘use it or lose it’ principle, which makes sense to me. It’s part of your body, after all, and everything in your body seems to work on that principle.

Ultimately there are no learning styles, meaning that there’s no such thing as a ‘visual learner’ or an ‘auditory learner’.

I hope this still means that memory is bound up with smell on some level! I don’t want to throw my essential oils out just yet. 

The curve of forgetting

The gist of the “curve of forgetting” is this: The first time you hear a lecture or study something new, you retain up to 80% of what you’ve just learned — if you review the material within 24 hours. 

Fortunately, this effect is cumulative; so after a week, you may retain 100% of the same information after only five minutes of review. 

Generally, psychologists agree this type of interval studying — as opposed to “cramming” — is best, and that students should study closer to the day they learned the material than the day of the test.
Our history teacher in secondary school subscribed to this method, and had a keywords system that helped us remember all those dates and facts and who did what where and when in World War II (or the Irish Free State, or the period in the Italian Renaissance that he gleefully called the Golden Age of Bastards, whenever).

He had us schedule regular review sessions, and I guess they worked because I got an A in history in my final exams and took that review system along with me for the rest of my life (or until now that is, at least.).

Learning when to stop

Thank you for sticking with me to the bitter end, and stay tuned for more thoughts on learning. Leave a comment and share what you’ve learned about learning!

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