Imagine you’re asked to memorize the Gettysburg Address. This would be moderately challenging, but ultimately doable.
Now imagine you’re asked to memorize a speech of equal length in Russian (or some other language you don’t know). Yikes. This would be tremendously difficult, borderline impossible.
Why is the second task so much harder?
The answer has to do with the fact that the human brain is very skilled at forgetting. And no, I’m not being snarky. Forgetting is a genuinely important thing for your brain to do.
Forgetting is Good
So much of what we see and hear each day is useless. You don’t need to remember all the little sounds you heard coming through your window today. You don’t need to remember all the license plate numbers on all the cars you walked by in the grocery store parking lot. Your brain does you a huge favor by deleting everything that seems unimportant.
“More than 99 percent of experience is fleeting, here and gone. The brain holds on to only what’s relevant, useful, or interesting – or may be so in the future.” –Benedict Carey1
Sometimes your brain forgets information because you’re not using it. This is the “use it or lose it” principle of memory. The things you learn but never practice are quickly forgotten.
But most of the “forgetting” your brain does is more immediate than that. It’s a form of filtering. Your brain sorts out all the information coming in, tossing aside everything that’s obviously irrelevant. This helps us focus on what matters.
In How We Learn, Benedict Carey writes, “Forgetting, remember, is not only a passive process of decay but also an active one, of filtering. It works to block distracting information, to clear away useless clutter.”1
And your brain is unlikely to recognize something as useful if it doesn’t make sense.
Why Confusing Things Are Hard to Remember
The first step in learning anything is called encoding: the process through which information is taken in and understood.2 Notice the key word there: understood. If the information that’s coming in doesn’t make sense, there’s little hope of storing it in your brain.
If you’re at a café, and you overhear someone’s conversation, it might grab your attention. If it was an interesting conversation, you might remember some of it later. But if the conversation were in Russian (or some other language you don’t know) you won’t remember what was said because you never understood it in the first place. It will also be less likely to grab your attention. It will seem more like background noise.
That’s what makes memorizing a speech in a foreign language so difficult. Our brains hear confusing information the same way they hear utter nonsense. Since we don’t understand it, our brains treat it like background noise or the babbling of a baby – something we’re aware of but don’t need to retain.
Now, the point of this isn’t to explain why it’s hard to memorize a speech in Russian. That’s not the kind of learning task students get asked to do. The point is to explain why it’s so much harder to remember school material that’s confusing.
We’re most easily confused by information that’s disconnected from things we already know. If I start telling you about the competing factions within the Jacobins during the Reign of Terror, you’ll be completely lost unless you already know a lot about the French Revolution. Lack of context makes things confusing.
Teachers, of course, try to avoid presenting information in this way. They logically connect one idea to the next as they build up a concept or tell a story. They work through the curriculum in a natural progression:
- Simplifying expressions is followed by solving equations, which is followed by solving inequalities.
- A study of eukaryotic cell parts is followed by the function of DNA, which is followed by protein synthesis.
- Industrialization is followed by imperialism, which is followed by World War One.
Unsurprisingly, students get confused when they fall behind. If you fail to learn a foundational concept, the concepts that build on it won’t make sense. If you haven’t kept up with the curriculum, you’ll lack the necessary context. And if you’re confused, you’ll have a hard time remembering what’s being taught.
Getting Caught Up
The ideal thing, of course, is to never fall behind. But the ideal thing rarely happens, so students should expect to need catchup work. This can range from patching holes in your math knowledge to reviewing old Spanish vocabulary to watching Crash Course videos to get caught up in science or history.
Whatever knowledge you’re missing, go learn it. The sooner you get caught up, the better. You don’t want things to get so confusing and hard to learn that you slip into a downward spiral of avoidance.
Too Many Details
Another reason information is sometimes confusing is that there are too many details. Topics like the French Revolution and cellular respiration are so riddled with minute details that it’s incredibly easy to get overwhelmed. And as soon as the material stops making sense, it stops being memorable, which is bad news if you’re taking a test on it.
This is why you should start with the summary when reading history and biology. Building familiarity with the content before trying to absorb the details helps you retain those details. Get the overview down first, and the rest will be less confusing and therefore more memorable.
Confusing things are often best understood through analogies:
- DNA transcription is like making a photocopy of a recipe (a gene), which you then take to the kitchen (a ribosome) to cook the recipe (a protein).
- Noble gases are like snooty royalty: they’ve got everything they need (a full set of valence electrons) and don’t want to interact with anyone else (they’re inert).
- Good studying is like learning to ride a bike. (It involves failure and repetition, and thereby forms a lasting memory.)
Analogies take unfamiliar things and connect them to things we already understand. This not only helps us make sense of them but also makes them more memorable.
The Solution is Mechanical
As with nearly all difficult problems, the challenge of remembering confusing academic content calls on us to remember the wisdom of Steven Pressfield:
“The problem is not you.
The problem is the problem.
It’s hard because it’s hard.
The solution is mechanical.
Work the problem.”3
You’re not struggling to retain what your teachers are presenting because you’re not smart enough. There’s nothing wrong with you. The content is just genuinely difficult to understand, and you need to employ strategies to make it easier to comprehend. When you do that, you’ll find that you’re perfectly capable of remembering what you’re studying.
1 Carey, Benedict. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens. Random House, 2014.
2 “How Memory Works.” The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Harvard University.
3 Pressfield, Steven. Do The Work!: Overcome Resistance and get out of your own way. Do You Zoom, Inc. 2011.
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.