How our memory works and how we do it to increase it.

What is a memory and how and where does our brain store information?

The memorization process, however romantic we can paint it, is attributable to neurons, synapses, chemistry and physics. The neurons are the cells that make up our brains; each of us has more than 100 billion. The synapses are the “highways” that connect the different neurons together, creating the so-called neural networks. Nearby you see a neuron with its synaptic buttons which, together with the synaptic space and post-synaptic membranes, form precisely the synapses that allow the exchange of information between the various neurons. When a memory is recalled, a group of neurons starts sending electro-chemical signals through the synapses, according to a specific sequence. A memory is therefore nothing but oneneural networkwhich activates in a precise sequence. Not very poetic, is it? Very important is the fact that several times a neural network is activated over time, the more the associated memory will be rooted in our memory. In practice, when something happens to us, several times we will rethink that given event and more likely we will remember it after some time because the neural network associated with it is activated several times. This happens because our brain favors the facts with which we deal several times, considering them the most important for our survival. From this discourse we understand why the repetition of a topic often before an exam makes us remember it better, moreover making a gesture repeatedly makes us do it better: our entire memory is based on replicated experiences.

Let’s see now how these complex biochemical mechanisms can actually help you take that nice 30 thumbs up that would be so convenient for you to raise the average in this exhausting exam session!

1) Reread vs Repeat: the first letter method

The study method of many university students is to re-read the exam material to the point of nausea . Well, this method doesn’t do much, at least from a scientific point of view: reading or rereading a paragraph activates a neural network different from the neural network associated with memorizing that paragraph. Translated into plain words: if you read a text ten times, you will simply be better at reading that passage and you will have improved your ability to read quickly, but not your memory, by 0.00001%! If you really want to memorize that text you have to repeat it mentally, without helping yourself with the “crutch” of the rereading. You have to force yourselfto repeat it. That effort fortifies the neural network as straining a bicep will strengthen that muscle (no pain no gain!).
This means in practice that when you study you have to read a limited number of times (one or two are usually enough) with maximum concentration and above all UNDERSTAND what you are reading, and then immediately start repeating everything you can remember; and not passively, but by trying to remember something more. In this way, not only will you save a lot of time, but you will really strengthen the neural network associated with memory and not that of reading. Reading a thousand times the same lines not only will not make you learn anything by heart, in addition you will waste a lot of precious time! And then the tenth time you read the same line you are sure that your secondary visual cortex will have stopped doing its interpretative work on the material read, leaving the primary visual cortexto read without even understanding what you have in front of you! You know when you are reading something but think of something else, you get to the end of the line and ask yourself: “what have I read so far?”; here, that is the typical sign that your two visual cortices do not get along with each other (the first one works and makes you read, but the second one does not make you understand what you are reading anymore) and read the same thousand times sentence is the best way to make them fight! Better to read once / twice with extreme attention and then try to repeat.

Let us now see a truly ” extreme ” application of this principle.

Imagine having to memorize, word for word, a certain definition (perhaps the article of a law or a biology formula). As we have seen, continuing to reread is of little use. In this case, we can use the first letter method . This strategy is very simple and consists in rewriting a certain passage, reporting only the first letter of each word and then studying the sequence of letters obtained. I’ll give you a practical example, using the first part of Art. 3 of our wonderful Italian Constitution :

All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law

Applying the first letter method we will obtain this sequence of letters:

T ichpdsesedal

Once the sequence of “first letters” is obtained, all you have to do is reread it 3-4 times, trying to mentally reconstruct the original text. This simple trick forces your brain to strengthen the right neural network from time to time, that is the one associated with memory and not that of reading. I used it in anatomy exams to remember, for example, the bones of the hand or skull. It worked for me! If for you this method is a little too extreme, you still have the concept that, to memorize, you have to build a neural network and to build it you have to try to remember something you have just read (and understood!), Avoiding to read it a thousand times, and bringing it back to a scheme as synthetic as possible.

Wanting to make this system more fun, you can create an acrostic,  that is, a poetic composition or another linguistic expression in which the letters or syllables or the initial words of each verse form a name or a phrase. In the case of the acrostic, the set of first letters forms a real word and not the previously mentioned ” T ichpdsesedal ” bislacco . For example, the phrase “continually enduring a horrible absurd lesson” can be memorized thanks to the word … “school”!

S orbirsi
C ontinuamente
U na
O rribile
L ection
A ssurda

Before closing this chapter, I ask you to read and try to remember this sequence of words that describe important concepts in determining the presence of a melanoma: size, evolution, color, asymmetry, edges . Do you find it difficult to remember this sequence? And instead it’s easy, just remember … ABCDE ! Look below:

A symmetry
B ordi
C olor
E volution

2) Memorize thanks to your mood

One of the essential elements of an amazing memory are emotions. There are numerous scientific studies on the link between memories and emotions. But you don’t need scientific demonstrations to convince yourself of how much mood and memory are linked to each other: I bet you remember exactly where you were or what you were doing on 11 September 2001 or during the 2006 World Cup final . The stronger the emotion we felt, the more the book in the library of which I spoke at the beginning of the article, it is voluminous, that is, the more the memory is rooted in our memory. If we want to recall a certain memory, it is therefore of great help to relive / remember the mood that we have experienced.

Given the deep bond that exists between moods and memory, it is of fundamental importance to make your study sessions alive and exciting . Every time you study, you have to do it with passion, you have to dig inside yourself to find that spark that pushed you to enroll in your faculty, you have to create a positive mood that helps you every time to quickly recall what you have studied. Emotions can be triggered by colors, sounds, smells. Even today I clearly remember the page and the topic of the Immunology book that I was studying while my mother cooked an epic pizza in the oven and the smell was spreading all over the house! Always associate emotions with your senses and the

3) Take advantage of the Von Restorff effect

Our memory has many weak points, also known in psychology as bias . Knowing these “weaknesses” allows us to effectively exploit our brain. One of the most famous memory biases is the so  called Von Restorff effect . Spotted for the first time by the pediatrician Hedwig von Restorff , this effect consists in the tendency of our brain to memorize what is unusual and distinguishes itself from the surrounding environment. I give you an example, read the next lines quickly:

The blond braids blue eyes and then …

Now repeat the words you remember. Probably the first phrase that comes to your mind is the one taken from the famous song of the great Lucio Battisti. Why does it happen? For at least five reasons:

  • it is a sentence of complete meaning;
  • describes something we have already heard before;
  • is in italics;
  • it is colorful;
  • is in bold.

In one word it is: DIFFERENT from the rest of the words. The ability to remember more easily what is different (i.e. stands out) from the average is precisely the Von Restorff effect. According to the theory of organizational processes, when we read a list we tend to organize all the similar products in the same category but we categorize the different products that stand out from the others in a different and more important category.

This makes them more easily memorable. To understand: does anyone remember the color of Schindler’s List’s girl’s coat ? The film was all in black and white and that color stood out so much that in thirty years I will still remember it! Also tomorrow at this hour try to remember this article: maybe the movie will come to your mindSchindler’s List , given that it is already the second time that I write it in bold and your brain has already cataloged it as “important” information.

How can we use the Von Restorff effect to better prepare our university exams? How do we differentiate and make a certain word stand out? Come on, you already know: with the highlighter! But how to use it in the best way?

How best to use highlighters to memorize more when we study?

Emphasize using different highlighters, with different colors and tips. At the time of university I had at least ten different highlighters and at least thirty different colored markers! Also let’s be clear: if you underline everything it’s as if you don’t underline anything , so you have to be very selective in emphasizing only what matters. I actually stressed very little at university and only in the very first exams, then I lost this habit and my books, from the second year onwards, do not even have half a word highlighted or underlined.

However, when I still highlighted, I used a system that included 3 highlighters : green included the main topic, yellow the sub-topics, orange the keywords. Very important, I repeat:stress as little as possible ! Interesting biographical note connected to the Von Restorff effect: when in my notes I happened to  make a mistake writing a word , I erased it and wrote the exact word on it, well, I remembered that word with ease. What stands out more than a mistake on a neat clipboard page?

And of course I’m not talking about erasing mistakes using whitebait , but with a various and evident thick black pen strokes, which maximized the Von Restorff effect. The funny thing is that, at some point, I made mistakes on purposeto better remember a word! The interesting thing is that when I made a mistake on purpose I remembered less than when I made a mistake by chance: our brain is difficult to fool!

To learn more, read also: von Restorff effect: what it is and how to use it to your advantage

PS What is the color of the Schindler’s List girl’s coat? Obvious: red!

4) Write, write, write … Understand, understand, understand …

Earlier I said that from the second year of Medicine onwards my books were completely free of underlining: someone, looking at them now without any sign, could ask me how I s

tudied at university. Simple, for each topic I wrote a summary in a notebook , a lively synthesis with millions of colors, highlighters, small drawings. Once I had summarized the topic, my notebook became my real book and from that point on I only studied there (the textbook was put back in the library and it remained there). Since my summary became “bible”, the process of creating the summary forced me to write my words very carefully, understanding the topic well, to avoid writing nonsense that I would later study. So: write summary, but write only after understanding it thoroughly .

Just learning by heart is much more expensive than understanding the topic in its key concepts! Many told me that rewriting the book entirely (because in the end it was exactly what happened), it was too long a process and that it would have taken too much time, but nobody realized that it was enough for me to write a topic carefully, to learn it, then for me every page of the synthesized book was already memorized automatically, other than waste of time!

After studying my syntheses, the next step was to obtain a series of very personal  concept maps with the key points that I needed to never be amazed at the question of my professors. But what is a conceptual map?

Read also:

  • Techniques to increase memory with training and mnemonic aids
  • The strange amnesia of the Russian officer Zasetskij: he remembered absolutely nothing

5) Stimulating concept maps

A conceptual map is a graphical tool for representing information in a practical, concise and fast way, in use since the seventies of the last century. Maps of this type are used to represent one’s knowledge around a topic according to a constructivist cognitive principle. If you don’t understand, don’t worry: soon you will see an example of a conceptual map and everything will be clear to you!

The most important advice is to create graphically stimulating concept maps . I have always considered concept maps an essential element of any study method; yet there are maps and maps. “Flat” maps with few links and of little interest will never help you remember your study material effectively. Create unusual maps, maps with unexpected connections between the different nodes, in short … maps that are YOURS and ONLY YOURS , that will print on your head! Let’s now see an example of a conceptual map:

This map helps us store information about the population on earth and its growth over the course of some eras. I found it on the internet and it is well made. Notice how the ancient era (in yellow on the left) differs from the green that indicates modern times. I would have done it a little differently. I would have colored the ancient periods of brown because brown for me is the color of the earth and reminds me of ancient times when there were no factories yet (which for me are represented by light gray , like the smoke they emit) or asphalt ( dark gray like the their color). Furthermore, I would have differentiated the four green blocks of modern times:

  1. very slow population growth: I would have colored it red, a color that reminds me of a slowdown if not a block. Alternatively, orange … In short, think of a traffic light;
  2. important population growth: I would have colored it light gray, certainly not for the concept of “important growth”, but for the notion of industrial development (which for me is precisely light gray);
  3. population growing more and more: here I would have used green, which for me represents precisely a free flow, a movement, an acceleration;
  4. trend reversal: I would not have used any color, but I would have drawn an arrownext to it that reverses the direction .

In addition, I would have used many more drawings : in ancient times, in the “nomads” box I would have drawn a tree (which I tie to the concept of freedom) while in the “sedentary” box I would have drawn a house (indicating immobility). In the “favorable climate” box I would have drawn a nice light yellow sun , in the “Egyptians and Nile” one dark yellow pyramid with two parallel blue strokes next to it, in the “lakes” I would have made a blue circle.
Instead in modern times I would have drawn a ” little Italy ” where Europe is mentioned and I would have drawn the sign of the eurowhere we talk about countries cataloged from an economic point of view. I could also have associated the euro sign where we talk about Europe and the dollar sign where we talk about economy, however, at least in my head, the two symbols could have been confused (indeed even inverted ) since they both belong to the same field. Obviously these are only examples, everyone must find their own colors and symbols. The more ” personal ” they will be, the easier you will be able to memorize. Needless to say, the designs must be stylized and quick to execute, so there is no need to be Giotto, on the contrary, the more “weird” the designs, the more likely you will remember them thanks to the Von Restorff effect! As you see, I often stress the concept ofpersonalization that was vital for me to memorize the two thousand-page books of Medicine! I have never been able to memorize anything by looking at notes or concept maps created by others for two reasons:

  1. symbols and keywords needed by others to remember, they are almost never the samethat I need to remember the same thing;
  2. I did not create themwhile memorizing for me was above all inherent in the creative process spent to create a certain conceptual map.

Who is thinking “but how long did it take you to make a conceptual map so full of colors and designs and memorize it?” I answer “much less than the time it would take me to memorize the same things WITHOUT drawing the map”, also because it was enough for me to draw it to memorize all the concepts: drawing and memorizing took place simultaneously and not in two distinct times, as I already had anticipated in the previous paragraph. Obviously this applies to me: you obviously have to find the most effective method for YOURSELF.

thing you need to remember.

6) Be careful in class

It seems trivial to remember it but, if you think that the study of a subject begins once the course is finished, you are wasting tons of time. The preparation of an exam takes place already during the lessons in the classroom, also because then the exam teacher demands the answers as he wants. Many times (at least in medicine) you study the textbook very well but then on exam the professor complains that you are answering badly because you don’t tell him the things that are right for him! Also, if the teacher spends three hours explaining iron deficiency anemia and ten seconds talking about anemia caused by increased hemolysis from Trypanosoma, I would spend more time studying the first than the second! Before studying the book, study your prof!

In any case, taking notes is a very important phase: to make the most of this moment, you must learn to take notes in the right way; they must be synthetic, schematic and must use  pre-established graphic symbols . Obviously as much as possible … personal !

Finally, remember that the teacher is human, so if he sees you attentive to his lessons, thanks to the Pygmalion effect he could get a good idea of ​​you and be more malleable on the exam! Furthermore, if he always sees you in a group of inattentive students, due to the halo effect he may consider you students less capable and on the exam to behave more aggressively. So be careful in the classroom and surrounded by other attentive students: you will play the part of nerds, but perhaps you will be facilitated on the exam!


7) Build a palace of memory

For hundreds of years, there has been a super-tested technique for enhancing mnemonic abilities, called the “loci technique”, also called “memory palace” or “Roman palace of memory” or Journey Method (ie “travel method”). It is a mnemonic technique introduced in ancient Greek and Roman treatises on rhetoric (Rhetorica ad Herennium, De oratore, and Institutio oratoria) and mentioned in many films and TV series including “The mentalist” and “Elementary”. In this mnemonic technique the elements to remember are associated with specific known physical places.

8) Absurd associations

The absurd associations used in the memory palace technique can also be used outside of this technique. I will give you an example. When I studied the extravasation of leukocytes during an inflammation in the physiology exam, I had to remember a specific sequence of events that included rolling, activation, adhesion and migration, associated with various elements such as mucin receptors, selectors, integrins and immuno-globulins … well to remember everything I imagined that Silvio Muccino (the actor) rolled at the supermarket, where he selected whole wheat pasta while listening to Radio Globo. Bislacco? Sure, but if after twenty years I still remember the leukocyte extravasation as if it were yesterday, perhaps the method works!

9) Healthy mind in healthy body

Remember that your brain is part of your body and the way to make it work best is to follow healthy lifestyles : stop smoking and taking drugs and alcohol; do physical activity; adequately fed with lots of water, fruit and vegetables and little salt and fat; get enough sleep .

10) Coffee

Coffee is an excellent ally for memory ( read this article about it ), but do not overdo it, also because, if you are already anxious and before the exams your heart beats a thousand, coffee can worsen the situation causing tachycardia and increased blood pressure! The question that patients and students often ask me is how much coffee can I drink every day when I am under examination? The amount of caffeine that an adult can normally take every day is about 5mg / kg of body weight , which means that a person who weighs 60 kg can take about 300mg of caffeine per day while a person who weighs 80 kg can take about 400mg. of caffeine per day. Taking into account thateach cup of espresso contains about 120mg of caffeine,  I recommend drinking no more than three coffees per day (in healthy individuals) ; after this quantity, decaffeinated is preferred.

11) Food supplements

To improve the study I used to use some dietary supplements, among which my favorite was glutamine. Excellent products to combat tiredness and improve memory and concentration that I recommend are:

  • Complete supplement to increase memory and concentration:
  • Glutamine:
  • Ginkgo Biloba:
  • Korean ginseng:
  • Guarana:
  • Vitamins and minerals:
  • Omega 3:
  • Magnesium in tablets:

Magnesium powder:

12) Last recommendations before … start studying again!

Always remember that it is more useful to study six hours by making a few stops every so often than to study eight hours without stopping for a minute. My anatomy teacher 3 always said that every 45 minutes of intense attention, our brain needs a break of at least 5-10 minutes . If you really can’t sleep the night before the exam, a 1 mg melatonin tablet , taken with a glass of water half an hour before going to bed , may help .

I hope these tips are useful and that … the memory is with you!


Leave a Comment