How the Brain Absorbs Information
Most people know the frustration that comes from being unable to recall information seen or heard in the recent past. This familiar experience is a result of the human brain’s ability to store some kinds of data effectively, making it available for recall later, and discard other kinds of data. It may seem inconvenient that the brain does not absorb all of the information that our five senses collect during waking hours, but it is actually essential that the brain chooses what it will and will not store in our long-term memories. The sheer amount of sensory data coming in on a continuous basis – everything we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch, along with all of our impressions about the sensations – would overwhelm the mind if all of it were automatically absorbed.
Instead of absorbing information indiscriminately, therefore, the brain employs a powerful filter in order to determine what will and won’t be stored. Improving one’s memory involves first of all understanding how this filter works so that we can use it to our own advantage. The human memory filter usually operates on a sub-conscious level, but its operation is tied to two key facets of learning: emotion and experience.
Emotion as a Key to Absorbing Information
The early history of the human race influenced the way in which our brains developed their capacity to retain information; things that needed to be learned thoroughly were often linked to moments of high emotion. A hunter in imminent danger of death because he had made a mistake in stalking would either survive or perish. Those who survived would probably perish on a future hunt unless they could remember their mistake well enough to avoid it in the future. What was the difference between those hunters who could remember and those who could not? Some of them had brains that became more active at times of high stress.
The course of evolution favoured the survival of those people whose memory filters admitted information that was linked to extreme emotions such as fear and regret. Recent research has shown that strong positive emotions such as exhilaration also cause our memory filters to switch on. Things that we learn at such times are more likely to be retained.
The implications of this for learning are clear and in order to absorb information more thoroughly, the learner should attempt to link it to emotion. Doubtless we are rarely in true danger in a classroom situation, but a skilled teacher can attempt to evoke emotion by linking learned material to anecdotes and visuals that will bring forth an emotional impulse. Learners who understand brain theory can assist in this by being open to the prospect of emotion being used as a tool in the classroom.
Experience as a Key to Absorbing Information
A second key way in which the brain filters information into memory involves the individual’s past experiences. Schema theory describes the brain as a filing cabinet filled with organized drawers and folders that have been created over time out of our experiences. A concert pianist, for example, has many different folders about music, perhaps organised by genre and composer. Upon hearing a new piece of music, this individual already has a structure in place in which to sort the added information. This assists in learning the information thoroughly and being able to recall it later.
In contrast, someone with little experience of music may simply file data about the new piece in a folder devoted to “piano music,” or he may not store any information about it at all. This lack of learning takes place because the brain’s filter rejects the information due to the absence of any structure into which it seems to fit.
Schema theory has strong implications for improving human memory. First of all, the more an individual knows about a subject, the easier it becomes to learn even more. This is because new learning always tries to attach itself to previously learned material. Therefore, learners who become frustrated in the early phases of mastering a new subject should persevere. As the brain builds up folders of information and begins to sort them into the appropriate drawers, recall and retention of the material will improve.
Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, learning even new material can become easier by making certain to consciously activate the correct folders in advance. A teacher presenting a lesson on World War I, for example, should announce the lesson objective in advance and conduct a brief discussion about what students already know regarding the era. This will help the students’ brains to “open up” the correct folder in their mind, which will result in more information being sorted there, since the brain will know where to put it.
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