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Fifteen myths about memory

In a hormonal sense, the brain is best suited for learning in the morning. It shows the highest alertness and the best balance between attention and creativity. The gains in knowledge structure and the speed of processing greatly outweigh all minor advantages of late-night learning.

Chennai: Considering that today's academic load on students is far higher than what used to be a few decades ago, in what ways can a professional student enhance his throughput and at the same time enjoy the exercise?

On this apparently loaded question about `load,' Prof K. Ganapathy, Neurosurgeon, Apollo Hospitals, Chennai, has a different view. He concedes that today's academic load on students is higher than earlier, but he also insists that it is equally true that learning tools and exposure have developed even faster than the quantum of knowledge that needs to be imbibed.

"Today we are in an era of information overload" notes Prof Ganapathy (www.kganapathy.com), in the course of an e-mail interaction with Business Line.

"In the 1960s and 1970s we had to spend hundreds of unproductive hours searching for information rather than studying the information. That was the BC (Before Computers) era" he adds, with a touch of humour.

"I do not think today's student has too much to complain. My three-and-a-half-year-old grandson is already at home with a computer. As Samuel Johnson once remarked, an educated person is one who know where the information is."

It is not necessary to store thousands of facts in one's brain, argues Prof Ganapathy. Once we learn how to learn, what to learn and where to learn, confronting the so-called academic load is a matter of effective time management, he reasons. "The Internet and the World Wide Web if properly used can certainly enhance a student's throughput and at the same time he can enjoy the exercise."

Excerpts from the interview:

What are the common myths about memory that can bog down a student's productivity?

There are many myths about memory.

The first myth is, `It is possible to produce everlasting memories.'

The fact, however, is that it is possible to learn things well enough to make it nearly impossible to forget them in lifetime. However, every long-term memory, depending on its strength, has an expected lifetime.

Here are more myths.

Myth 2: We never forget.

Fact: All knowledge is subject to gradual decay. It is only a matter of probability. Strong memories are very unlikely to be forgotten. In the normal course one does not forget one's name.

Myth 3: Memory is infinite.

Fact: Memories are stored in a finite number of states of finite receptors in finite synapses in a finite volume of the human central nervous system. Even worse, storing information long-term is not easy. Most people will find it hard to store beyond 3,00,000 facts.

Myth 4: Mnemonics are a panacea to poor memory.

Fact: Mnemonic techniques reduce the difficulty of retaining things in memory. Repetition is still needed, even though it can be less frequent.

Myth 5: The more you repeat the better.

Fact: The fastest way to building long-lasting memories is to review material in precisely determined moments of time. For long memories with minimum effort, spaced repetition should be used.

Myth 6: We cannot improve memory by training.

Fact: If considered at a very low synaptic level, this is true. Biologically the synapses of a low-IQ (intelligence quotient) individual are not too different from that of a genius or the mollusc Aplysia or the fruit fly Drosophila. However, there is more to memory and learning than just a single synapse. The main difference between poor students and geniuses is in their skill to represent information for learning. A genius quickly dismembers information and forms simple models that make life easy. Simple models of reality help understand it, process it and remember it. Molecular or synaptic memory need not improve. What needs to improve is their skill to handle knowledge. Consequently, they can remember more and longer. Learning is a self-accelerating and self-amplifying process.

Myth 7: Mind maps are always better than pictures. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Fact: It depends on the material. Text is compact and easy to reproduce. To memorise your spouse's birthday or the date of India's independence, a picture is not required. On the other hand, a video clipping of an operative procedure is easier to remember and recall than factual data.

Myth 8: Learn new things before sleep - for, there is a widespread myth claiming that the best time for learning is right before sleep to ensure that newly-learned knowledge gets quickly consolidated overnight.

Fact: The opposite is true. The best time for learning in most healthy individuals is early morning. In a hormonal sense, the brain is best suited for learning in the morning. It shows the highest alertness and the best balance between attention and creativity. The gains in knowledge structure and the speed of processing greatly outweigh all minor advantages of late-night learning (I learn best at 0430 hours!!!)

Myth 9: Long sleep is good for memory. Association of sleep and learning made many believe that the longer we sleep the healthier we are. In addition, long sleep improves memory consolidation.

Fact: All we need for effective learning is well-structured sleep at the right time and of the optimum length. Many individuals sleep less than five hours and wake up refreshed. Many geniuses sleep little and practise catnaps. The best formula for good sleep: listen to your body. Go to sleep when you are sleepy and sleep as long as you need. When you catch a good rhythm without an alarm clock, your sleep may ultimately last less but produce far better results in learning. It is the natural healthy structure of sleep cycles that makes for good learning (especially in non-declarative problem solving, creativity, procedural learning, etc.).

Myth 10: Alpha waves are best for learning.

Fact: It is true that a relaxed state is vital for learning. "Relaxed" here means stress-free, distraction-free, and fatigue-free. You do not need "alpha-wave machinery" to enter the "relaxed state".

Myth 11: Memory gets worse as we age. Aging universally affects all organs. Fifty per cent of 80-year-olds show symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Hence the overwhelming belief that memory unavoidably gets rusty at an older age.

Fact: It is true we lose neurons with age. It is true that the risk of Alzheimer's increases with age. However, a well-trained memory is quite resilient and shows comparatively fewer functional signs of aging than the joints, the heart, the vascular system, etc.

Moreover, training increases the scope of your knowledge, and paradoxically, your mental abilities may actually increase well into a very advanced age (My father had a superb memory at 93!!)

Myth 12: You can boost your learning with memory pills.

Fact: We still do not know the exact biological basis of memory. Marketing of "memory pills" and their unfortunate endorsement by public figures is the biggest 21st century hoax.

Myth 13: Learning by doing is the best.

Fact: Learning by doing is very effective in terms of the quality of produced memories, but it is also very expensive in expenditure of time, material, organisation, etc. Naturally, in the area of procedural learning (example, swimming, touch typing, playing instruments, etc.), learning by doing is the right way to go.

Myth 14: People differ in the speed of learning, but they all forget at the same speed.

Fact: At the synaptic level, the rate of forgetting is indeed basically the same, independent of how smart you are. However, the same thing that makes people learn faster also helps them forget slower. The key to learning and slow forgetting is representation (that is, the way knowledge is formulated). The fastest student is the one who can instinctively visualise and store knowledge in his mind using minimum-information maximum-connectivity imagery.

Myth 15: Learning while sleeping.

Fact: Learning in sleep may be disruptive to sleep itself. Learning while sleeping should not be confused with the natural process of memory consolidation and optimisation that occurs during sleep. This process occurs during a complete sensory cut-off, that is, there are no known methods of influencing its course to the benefit of learning

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