Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Memory and association

Many years ago I was living in a very small town on the West Coast, a long way from anywhere. To get my fill of city life (read: good bookshops) I’d catch a bus over to Christchurch for a weekend every few weeks. On the way home, the bus driver (and by extension, all his passengers) would listen to the radio for as far out into the countryside as the signal lasted, then would switch to the cassette player (I said it was many years ago!). She always put the same compilation tape on, and because the radio signal always ran out at the same spot, the songs on that tape became strongly associated in my mind with certain spots along the road.

The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” always came on just as we left the plains and started up the first steep incline towards the pass, so when I heard that song on the radio the other day, my mind was immediately transported to that hill. Despite the fact I last caught that bus more than 20 years ago, and it’s probably at least 15 years since I’ve even been in that part of the country, I could remember every detail – the way the road curves, the types of trees that grow alongside, even what the road signs said. If you’d asked me to describe the road in normal circumstances, I’d have had no hope, but because of the strong association from the music, my memories were crystal clear.

Great story, Jen, you might be saying, but what’s your late 80s nostalgia got to do with studying in 2013? Actually, quite a lot. It’s been shown that this kind of sensory association can aid learning in all sorts of situations. By purposefully stimulating one of your senses in a particular way while learning material, your recall of it will be improved by replicating that same stimulation at a later date – in an exam, say. Of course, you can’t play The Bangles in an exam room, but you can set up other sensory associations.

At the simplest level, when you’re studying towards an exam where recalling facts is going to be important, try and replicate some of conditions you’re likely to encounter when in the exam room. So as far as possible, study in silence (sorry, no 80s music). Try and get your comfort levels to match, too - wear the same sort of clothes (including shoes) to study in as you’ll wear on the day, and sit in a chair of a similar type (it doesn’t have to be identical, but don’t study sitting in a comfy armchair if you’ll be on hard plastic seats for the exam). If you’re into essential oils you could even set up olfactory clues (which are often said to be the strongest form of sensory memory jogger) – perhaps a few drops of a particular oil on a handkerchief that you can sniff when the need arises?

Of course, none of this is a substitute for hard work, but it can give your memory a little boost just when you need it most. And let’s face it, when it comes to exams, every little bit helps!

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