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How We Learn

The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens

By Benedict Carey
  • Read in 15 minutes
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  • Contains 9 key ideas
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How We Learn by Benedict Carey

How We Learn explains the fascinating mechanisms in our minds that form and hold memories, and shows how with this information, we can better absorb and retain information. You’ll explore the many functions of the brain and gain practical advice on how to better study and learn.

Key idea 1 of 9

Memories are formed through the connection of cells and are stored in specific areas of the brain.

To understand the most effective studying and learning methods, we must first understand the basics about the brain. How does it create memories? And how do we retrieve them?

Memories are created through the process of connecting different neurons, or cells which send signals within the brain to transmit information.

A memory, such as your first day at school, is created when neurons are stimulated and then form a network of many connected neurons, called synapses.

Each time we retrieve a specific memory, synapses essentially grow thicker. In other words, having thicker synapses means our recall of that memory or information stored in that network is faster and clearer.

But memories aren’t stored all in the same place, forming one huge knot of synapses. In fact, different types of memory form in different areas of the brain.

The area of the brain that forms new, conscious memories, such as the name of the person you’ve just met, is called the hippocampus.

Fascinatingly, people whose hippocampus has been removed or destroyed are still able to retrieve older memories, which shows us that older memories are stored somewhere else: in a region called the neocortex. This area of the brain is divided further, into areas that control how we move or how we process what we see.

When you think about your first day of school, for example, your brain “looks” for where that sensory information is stored. If you remember clearly the dingy green color of the school hallway, then this memory would be stored in neurons located in the visual processing section of your neocortex.

So, if a memory includes lots of different stimuli – colors or smells or textures – stored by many neuronal networks in different regions of the brain, you can understand why you can remember these memories more clearly: more connections in more places means better recall.

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