Making information meaningful leads to better memory
June 19, 2017
When trying to memorize information, it is better to relate it to something meaningful rather than repeat it again and again to make it stick, according to a recent Baycrest study published in NeuroImage.
“When we are learning new information, our brain has two different ways to remember the material for a short period of time, either by mentally rehearsing the sounds of the words or thinking about the meaning of the words,” says Dr. Jed Meltzer, lead author and neurorehabilitation scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute. “Both strategies create good short-term memory, but focusing on the meaning is more effective for retaining the information later on. Here’s a case where working harder does not mean better.”
Past studies have looked at repetition to create short-term memories, but these findings suggest that using the word’s meaning will help “transfer” memories from the short-term to the long-term, says Dr. Meltzer. This finding is consistent with the strategies used by the world’s top memory champions, who create stories rich with meaning to remember random information, such as the order of a deck of cards.
Through this work, researchers were able to pinpoint the different parts of the brain involved in creating the two types of short-term memories.
“This finding shows that there are multiple brain mechanisms supporting short-term memory, whether it’s remembering information based on sound or meaning,” says Dr. Meltzer, who is also a psychology and speech language pathology professor at the University of Toronto. “When people have brain damage from stroke or dementia, one of the mechanisms may be disrupted. People could learn to compensate for this by relying on an alternate method to form short-term memories.”
For example, people who have trouble remembering things could carry a pad and rehearse the information until they have a chance to write it down, he adds.
The study recorded the brain waves of 25 healthy adults as they listened to sentences and word lists. Participants were asked to hold the information in their short-term memory over several seconds, and then recite it back, while their brain waves were recorded. Participants were then taken to a testing room to see if they could recall the information that had been heard. Through the brain scans, researchers identified brain activity related to memorizing through sound and meaning.
As next steps, Dr. Meltzer will use these findings to explore targeted brain stimulation that could boost the short-term memory of stroke patients.
Additional funding would support the exploration of which types of memory are best treated by current drugs or brain stimulation and how these can be improved.
This work was supported by funding from the Tony Hakim Award for Innovative Stroke Research from the Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery, a New Investigator Research Grant from the Alzheimer’s Association and Baycrest Health Sciences.
About Baycrest Health Sciences
Baycrest Health Sciences is a global leader in geriatric residential living, healthcare, research, innovation and education, with a special focus on brain health and aging. Fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest provides excellent care for older adults combined with an extensive clinical training program for the next generation of healthcare professionals and one of the world’s top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience, the Rotman Research Institute. Baycrest is home to the federally and provincially-funded Canadian Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation, a solution accelerator focused on driving innovation in the aging and brain health sector, and is the developer of Cogniciti – a free online memory assessment for Canadians 40+ who are concerned about their memory. Founded in 1918 as the Jewish Home for Aged, Baycrest continues to embrace the long-standing tradition of all great Jewish healthcare institutions to improve the well-being of people in their local communities and around the globe. For more information please visit: www.baycrest.org
About Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute
The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences is a premier international centre for the study of human brain function. Through generous support from private donors and funding agencies, the institute is helping to illuminate the causes of cognitive decline in seniors, identify promising approaches to treatment, and lifestyle practices that will protect brain health longer in the lifespan.
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