Did you know that the two recent movies that most accurately depict Amnesia are 1) Memento (2001) and 2) Finding Nemo (2003)?

Most movies depict retrograde amnesia (losing the ability to recollect past memories). But anterograde amnesia (losing the ability to commit new memories into the long-term memory) is far more common. The characters in both movies are unable to form new memories and are constantly stuck in the past.

Amnesia is a serious clinical condition, but nobody is a stranger to struggling with making learned materials stick. Think back to having to painstakingly learn vocabulary at school for a foreign language, only to be tested in annoyingly frequent quizzes. There, science discovered the lasting stickiness of the psychological spacing effect:

Learning is greater when studying is spread out over time, as opposed to studying the same amount of content in a single session.”

But why is it so difficult to commit learned material in your memory? Let’s have a look at the science behind the everyday forgetting.

The forgetting curve

Consider the following cases:

In school, most of us tried last-night cramming sessions to desperately pass the exam next day. Unfortunately, none of that material stuck around after.

Several years later you attended a training at work, picking up all the basics of a new software only to find yourself at a loss when back in front of your computer.

In these cases, the infamous forgetting curve did its duty. It describes the decrease in ability of the brain to retain memory over time. As you can see from our previous blog post, the curve can go quite steep – unless you take effective measures.

The mechanics of remembering

Remembering has everything to do with where the knowledge is stored.

The main types of memory most research agrees on:

1.       Sensory memory

Nothing but a brief recall of a sensory experience. Gone in 3 seconds.

2.       The short-term memory (working memory)

It stores information temporarily, enough for us to use it. It’s how we process ideas and carry out plans. Lasts anywhere between 30 seconds to a few days.

3.       The long-term memory

The long-term memory is where our life knowledge is stored. Mostly it’s not forever, but reliable for a few days to decades.

Nothing is successfully learned until it is stored into the long-term memory.

However, most learning moments will trigger your sensory or short-term memory, which means it’s doomed to be forgotten. To counteract this effect, you must go an extra mile. This image helps you set your learning goal to long-term:

Beat the curve

In order to beat the forgetting curve and get into the long-term memory, space the learning out and repeat to reinforce new knowledge.

Want to apply this to your everyday life? Keep the following three tips in mind:

1.       Make studying a consistent habit, like drinking coffee.

2.       If you have an ambitious learning goal, don’t cram it into a long study day. Break it down into a few hours every day, for a few weeks.

3.       Repeat your study material even after you’re done with your goal.

There are also some tools that can help you by prompting you to repeatedly rehearse information. Flash cards for example - write the solution on one side, and the question on the other. Quiz yourself by looking at the question side and retrieve the solution from memory.

There are also online versions of flash cards, such as ANKI software. It is great for learning a new language, especially ones with different alphabets.

Another great tool are E-learning platforms. They can be virtual coaches who provide you with the material, as well as the method to learn effectively. Look for ones that incorporates sending you refresher questions and keep the learning going.

Whatever you do, don’t stop until you’ve really learned it!

By the way

We gathered these insights developing 5miles, a Challenge-based methodology that helps professionals improve their skills. To counteract the forgetting curve, our approach uses bite-sized learning moments and recap questions to refresh the learning. More on our LinkedIn page!