Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

Wow…just realizing that the last I wrote was 29th May! I’m so bad at this…if I’m one of those bloggers making a living through their blog, I would have starved by now. It’s just that time really does fly. After 29th May, I had gone off on a hiking trip in Japan, then July came around and I was zombified trying to adjust to school starting again then there was National Day, Teachers’ Day, the national elections and here we are in the middle of September. If your time also has wings like mine, I’m thinking some of you must be reeling in shock that promos is merely 2 weeks away or that the JC2s will be graduating 3 weeks from now!

Which is why I guess books on boosting productivity are usually the best selling ones like Peter Bregman’s 18 minutes. One of the most common ways students try to make up for lost time is to multitask like crazy. One student once told me she listens to audio books on Geography while working on her Math equations. She figured that even if she finds it hard to do both, maybe there’s a passive osmosis effect happening and her brain will absorb the Geography stuff anyway. Maybe you don’t do something quite so insane but you find it quite common to be working on your assignments while listening to music, searching for cat videos on youtube, replying to whatsapp messages, eating Mcdonalds and shaking your leg all at the same time…or at least you think you are accomplishing them all at the same time.

In recent times, scientists have discovered that multitasking is a myth and that we humans aren’t as good at doing many things at one time as we think we are. When we think we are ‘multitasking’, we are in actual fact, switch tasking or background tasking. What this means is that when we are doing more than one thing at a time (say listening to lecture and checking instagram), our brain switches between these two tasks in a rapid fire way. Brain scientists have found that it is virtually impossible to be doing two things simultaneously with the exception of physical tasks that we find automatic (say walking and talking at the same time). The cost of constant switch tasking is that we end up spending more time on completing a task than if we were to focus on just one thing at a time. The quality of the work also suffers and we ultimately end up less productive than ever. Check out this video by Dave Crenshaw and do ‘The Myth of Multitasking Test’ to experience this for yourself!

Here’s me when I tried it out. The 2nd attempt looks like $%@ indeed. FullSizeRender

The science behind this is that similar tasks (like texting, doing assignments and listening to lectures) compete to use the same part of the brain and research shows that people can attend to only ONE cognitive task at a time. So the bottom line is this: if you want to boost your productivity, cut down on your multitasking. We might think we are saving time by multitasking, but in reality, brain science has shown that you are just wasting time and you are probably better off focusing on the task at hand singularly.

One student recently told me that she realized when she just buckles down and do her work without being distracted by her phone, youtube or music, she hammered out her math assignment real fast. Piece of cake. Something to think about. Here’s a clip from Ellen on multitasking to keep you entertained. Hopefully you won’t be watching this while doing your work. 🙂

ID-10052826I like to sleep. Alot. It has always been this way from when I was in primary school right up to now. Someone once told me that when you get older, you need less sleep. Not me. 9 hours of sleep is barely sufficient for me. In university I stayed at the dorm and I was sleeping alot of the time even during the exam period. My room mate was one who would make 3 packets of 3 in 1 coffee in a single mug to stay awake. Me? I study for awhile then I sleep. And sleep. And sleep. It irritated my room mate to no end because I always ended up doing better than her in the exams. She can’t, for the life of her, understand how it is that I sleep so much (and therefore spend much less time revising compared to her) and still do better than her. I didn’t understand that myself. I thought maybe I was a genius…haha…which obviously didn’t help our friendship. Until I discovered neuroscience, the study of how our brain works, then I realized that I’m no genius. I just happened to have stumbled on that one key thing which helps students to do better in school – SLEEP.

Neuroscientists have discovered that sleep helps with learning and memory and that successful students tend to sleep more. I previously wrote about how repetition helps with memory and the connection between short term memory (STM or the stuff we forget quickly) and long term memory (LTM or the stuff that sticks). Turns out, sleep plays a critical role in memory consolidation!

You and I both know that as a student, one of the most important brain functions you would need is memory. As a student, you probably rely on that brain function more than anything else, especially if you take history!! You and I also know that many students think sleep is a luxury. One of the students I recently talked to logically deduced that since he wakes up feeling tired whether he sleeps early or late, then he might as well sleep late and spend that extra time doing his school work. Sounds logical if you didn’t already know about the concept of sleep debt which I’ll talk about in another post.

Neuroscientists performed a number of research on subjects who were randomly grouped into two groups, Group A and B. Both groups were asked to memorize a simple mathematical formula and then after another 30 minutes they were asked to memorize another mathematical formula. Group B was given a nap in between of about 15 minutes while group A was not allowed to nap. They then used a fancy machine to do brain imaging on both groups and found that the nap group (group B) had completed the shift from STM to LTM. Meaning, that the formula they memorized has successfully shifted to a place in their brain where they will remember it for a long time and is therefore able to retrieve that information if they were to say sit for a maths test the following week. That, compared to the group that didn’t nap (group A) and therefore is more likely to forget the information the next day.

So what does this all mean? If you are trying to memorize something really important, take a short nap after you’ve memorized it. What?! Sounds so counter intuitive. But that’s what neuroscience has proven. Sometimes the best way to remember stuff is to sleep on it. Over and over again, experts in the field have pointed out that you can’t pull an all-nighter and still learn (or remember) effectively. That’s why we feel tired after a full day of school. We learned so much stuff in school our brain is screaming out for us to sleep so that it can do its job properly – consolidating stuff and shifting material from STM to LTM. When we don’t sleep, our brain can’t do its job, and we so so need our brain to do its job.

So this September holidays, treat yourself right. Sleep on.

Power up! your memory

Posted: April 29, 2013 in memory, neuroscience
Tags: ,

boost-your-brain-power-7-tips-for-improving-your-memory_w654I just had my birthday a couple of months ago. I try to tell myself age is just a number but really, it’s not. I used to be able to remember telephone numbers, do mental arithmetic in a flash, remember the faces and names of people I met and never ever needed a grocery list because I could remember everything I needed to buy. Not anymore. Now I need my phone to remind me to buy things which I will forget to buy otherwise, a calculator app so I don’t have to do mental math and I’ve become very good at pretending that I remember your name when I quite frankly don’t. In the zynga scramble world of which I’ve gained quite some ‘fame’ as a scramble addict, I can opt for ‘power ups’ which would give me extra ‘freeze’ time, or ‘inspiration’ for words when I run out of ideas etc. If only there are equivalents of these ‘power ups’ for our ability to remember stuff – our memory.

So I turned to neuroscience (the study of our brains) to see if there are ways to make my memory better. And see if this may help students remember the stuff they studied better. Cos I guess nothing is more frustrating than spending many hours memorizing the math logarithms and chemistry stuff (I’m no good at chemistry so I can only call them ‘stuff’) only to not be able to recall when you most need to. What I discovered was super interesting and opened my eyes to a whole new world of how our brains work and I hope this will be helpful for you.

How we remember stuff

When we learn something new (names of people we’ve just met, math equations and chemistry stuff etc) a neural pathway is formed in our brain. Our brain categorizes memory into 3 main types – the immediate, the short term and the long term. Say you learn during Math lecture the consine rule that   a2 = b2+ c2 – 2bccosA. As you’re copying down the formula, you’re using your immediate memory. You may use the formula to answer some tutorial questions the next few days and that’s when it’s in your short term memory. The next week, the teacher moves on to a different topic on differentiation but because you’ve been a really good student and have been revising previous topics you still remember the cosine rule. 🙂 That’s when you’re tapping on your long term memory.

Whatever is stored in our long term memory can be retrieved easily when needed and is resistant to fading. Immediate memory by contrast is only there for the moment and short term memory is probably good for only a couple of days. Our goal therefore in remembering important stuff needed for exams is to move it into our long term memory. If we can succeed in doing that, then last minute cramming is a thing of the past because it’s all already there! But question is HOW do we do that? Read on.

I mentioned earlier that I read that a neural pathway is formed in our brain whenever we learn new information. Neuroscientists have found that this pathway is very important in terms of helping us to recollect information learned. The stronger the pathway, the better the recollection. Experiments were done on groups of people where one group was asked to rehearse the information (memory) a few times and the other group just once. MRI of their brains were taken and they found that the neural pathway or connection of the people who rehearse the information more were stronger than those who did it less frequently.

ID-100145416Also, everytime we rehearse the memory, the short term memory part of our brain (the hippocampus) and the long term memory part of our brain (the pre frontal lobe) plays ‘ping pong’ with the memory and with time this memory becomes lodged in the long term memory part and is more resistant to fading.

So I guess the point is to recap and recap the information you studied? Which I guess is not a new revelation per say but one proven rigorously by neuroscience. An important point to note is that it’s not just reading and re-reading the notes, but recapping the information in different sensory ways such as listening to it being taught in lectures,  reading about it, then reading it out loud, then taking notes of it, then testing yourself etc.

In the next post, I will write about the relationship between sleep and memory which I think is the most fascinating of the lot! Is sleeping less the best way to learn more? To sleep or not to sleep?

Images courtesy of bplanet/freedigitalphotos.net