Get the meaning, then get the details 0

meaning before details memory learningWhen you know a lot about a particular subject, whether that be Biology or History or Palaeontology, you don’t just know a whole load of unrelated facts, rattling around your head like a bucket full of M&Ms.

If you know what you’re talking about, you will have gotten to grips with and understand the main themes and principles of your subject.

You will have a good overview of the ‘territory’ in a way that breaks your knowledge down into different compartments or areas.

This is vital in being able to remember a subject effectively.


Mr Baker and the baker: a paradox 0

the Baker baker paradox memoryShow two people a picture of a man. Tell one person that this is Mr Baker and tell the second person that this is a picture of ‘a baker’.

Bring them back a week later and test them to see who can remember what they were told. Those told that the person was a baker are much more likely to remember. Same photo. Same sound. Same word. Different result.

It’s a paradox: the Baker/baker paradox. And it’s very important for understanding how our mind remembers things.


The Magical Number Seven and how you can use it 0

“My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer.

For seven years this number has followed me around, has intruded in my most private data, and has assaulted me from the pages of our most public journals.

This number assumes a variety of disguises, being sometimes a little larger and sometimes a little smaller than usual, but never changing so much as to be unrecognizable.

The persistence with which this number plagues me is far more than a random accident. There is, to quote a famous senator, a design behind it, some pattern governing its appearances.

Either there really is something unusual about the number or else I am suffering from delusions of persecution.

george a miller harvard psychologist

George Armitage Miller

Thus begins a research paper entitled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information” written by Harvard’s George A. Miller in 1956.  The article was first published in Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

Miller was looking at the capacity of our ‘working memory‘, a temporary scratchpad where we hold and manipulate information before passing it on for long-term storage, or not.

His research established that we seem to be able to hold between 5 – 9 ‘chunks’ of information at any one time, and if we try to hold more than that then we get ourselves into trouble.


The Serial Position effect: nothing to do with Cornflakes 2

serial position effect primacy recencyIf you’ve ever watched Britain’s Got Talent or The X Factor you might have noticed that when they have a number of performers singing on a programme, while you can remember the last few performances, and maybe one or two from the beginning of the evening, those in the middle become a bit of a mush: entirely unmemorable.

What you are experiencing is the Serial Position Effect which was discovered in the late 1800s, through self-experimentation, by Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist who pioneered the experimental study of memory. We will hear more about Herr Ebbinghaus in other blogs.


The Zeigarnik Effect: how leaving a task uncompleted can… 0



… improve your memory.

the zeigarnik effect

Bluma Zeigarnik, 1921

I wonder how many of you watch the Big Bang Theory? Do you remember the episode where Sheldon became really frustrated because a science fiction series had been cancelled, leaving him without closure, not knowing what was going to happen?

Amy Farrah Fowler then tries to cure him of his need for closure by givings him a range of tasks to complete, then frustrating him before the end of every one, for example singing happy birthday but stopping him from blowing out the candles, or playing a tune on a music box and then stopping before the end.

Although apparently ‘cured’ of his intense need for closure, once Amy has left, Sheldon rushes around his apartment re-creating and completing the tasks so he can finally have peace.


How to Remember Where Your Left Your Keys 1

forgetting my keysThis is a problem for many people, I think: Where did I put my keys? You lurch about the house, trying to remember all the rooms that you have been in since you came home, trying to puzzle out which horizontal surface you left them on… or maybe they slipped down the back of something.


There are two solutions to this problem, one solution is quite practical and pragmatic and the other solution involves learning a bit about how our memory works and how best to use it to remember things.

How to remember the cranial nerves 0

remember the cranial nervesAccording to Google Adwords, more than 1,100 people a month search the Internet wanting to know how to remember the cranial nerves. This is a bit of a specialist subject, only really relevant to medical and dental students, but I thought it might be useful if I ran through a method that you can use to memorize the cranial nerves, to help put these students out of their misery!

The cranial nerves, by the way, are nerves that emerge from your brain and serve various functions.

Years ago, I trained to be a Dental Surgeon and I can still remember the names of the twelve cranial nerves, which are as follows:

  • Olfactory
  • Optic
  • Oculomotor
  • Trochlear
  • Trigeminal
  • Abducent
  • Facial
  • Vestibulocochlear
  • Glossopharyngeal
  • Vagus
  • Accessory
  • Hypoglossal

And the secret of how to remember the cranial nerves, in my case quite spectacularly, I think (having learned the cranial nerves over 30 years ago!) is to use an acrostic, which is a mnemonic device – a memory technique – based on remembering a memorable sentence where the 1st letter of each of the words is the same as the first letter of each of the words that you need to remember.

Let me give you an example.

How to remember the order of the planets 0

remember the order of planetsAccording to Google Adwords, nearly 1,500 people a month search the Internet wanting to know how to remember the order of the planets so I thought it might be useful if I ran through a couple of methods that you can use to memorize the planets, to help put all these people out of their misery!

Here is a list of the planets to begin with, in order from the closest to the sun to the furthest from the sun:

  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Earth
  • Mars
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn
  • Uranus
  • Neptune
  • Pluto

I realise that Pluto has now been demoted and is no longer classed as a planet, but it feels wrong not to include it!