Here’s a fundamental principle of memory formation: The brain remembers what is useful.
But how does the brain determine what is useful?
One answer is human nature. Our brains evolved to see certain things as inherently important: the locations of food, sights and sounds that signal danger, potential mates. These things all stand out as useful to our evolved psychology and are therefore easily remembered.
Another way the brain determines what is useful is by adapting to what our culture teaches us is useful. For example, a teenager being raised in Seattle right now will probably learn that it’s important to follow the Seahawks, maintain an active Instagram account, and know something about Fortnite, Rick and Morty, and Stranger Things. These are socially important for many teenagers today (or at least they were last time this 34-year-old checked), so they’re easily learned and remembered.
So far we haven’t hit on anything that’s directly under our control. And we also haven’t covered anything academically important. So how can we apply this principle of memory formation to school?
It turns out there’s another way the brain determines what is useful: by observing what we actually use.
An important principle of human psychology is self-perception, which teaches that our minds sort out who we are, what to think, and how to feel, in part by observing our own behavior. So when you repeatedly use some piece of knowledge, your brain is watching you do so, and it’s learning. It’s as though your brain has this unconscious inner dialogue going that goes something like this:
Hmmm… I wonder why we keep using that idea? It didn’t seem obviously important or useful. But since we keep using it, it must be! Let’s go ahead and store that piece of information in long-term memory.
Here are some academic examples of this principle in action:
- If you’re learning new vocabulary words, you’ll be much more likely to remember them if you can use them in your writing and weave them into your everyday conversations.
- If you want to remember the correct way to pronounce the Spanish you’re learning, and also remember the words and conjugations themselves, speak Spanish whenever possible.
- If you don’t want to forget how to perform some algebra routine you’ve just learned in math class, you’re going to need to practice using it on a regular basis.
Remember, memory formation is all about convincing your brain to care, and repeatedly using something that you’d like to remember is a powerful way to do that.
There’s an easy way for parents to lead by example on this one, and it will come with the added benefit of improving a key social skill: remembering people’s names. Most people self-identify as “bad at remembering names,” when, in reality, they could become very good at remembering people’s names if they employed this principle.
So, the next time you’re told someone’s name, immediately use it. And then use it again. And again. And again. Each time you say their name aloud, you’ll be growing more and more confident that you’ll remember their name later because your brain will be picking up on the signal you’re sending. By repeatedly using their name, your brain comes to understand that the name is useful and therefore worth remembering.
There is even an abbreviated mastery path for learning a person’s name.
You begin in a state of “I don’t know.” (the equivalent of “I don’t get it.”), you’re told the person’s name (the equivalent of “I get it!”), and then you either move forward down the path toward long-term memory (mastery) or you forget their name. The important thing to keep in mind is that the mastery path for names is a really muddy slope, and right when you learn someone’s name, it’s incredibly easy to forget it. If you let just ten seconds go by without using their name, you’ll probably forget. This is a classic case of use it or lose it.
I sometimes make a joke of it when I first meet someone, saying, “I’m so glad to meet you Cory. Say Cory – I’m going to you use your name a lot right away Cory, so I don’t forget that it’s Cory. What do you do for fun Cory?”
It might seem weird, but hey, it’s often good to be weird, and this technique works.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.