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    Don’t Fight Your Brain

    In part one of our brain blogs, we described some key differences between human brains and computers. Unlike computers, our brains:

    • Store memories in a tangle of associated memories.
    • Are selective in which memories they can access.
    • May need a cue to retrieve a memory.

    Understanding these differentiators can be extremely helpful when preparing for a board exam and even in your daily life. Below are five ways you can harness your brain’s habits to remember more.

    1. Seek understanding. The fundamental, and most important rule, is to truly grasp the information you hope to retrieve later. You can’t reinforce what you don’t know. And if you misunderstand the information, reviewing without self-correction will only reinforce your error.
    2. Make associations. When you first learn something, connect it to what you already know, noting how it links to related topics. If possible, associate it to something or someone personal, such as a former patient. Also, pull out any false threads that may have become entangled with this memory, by correcting previous assumptions or errors.
    3. Practice self-testing. Retrieval is an exercise: You must practice it to strengthen it. This can’t be done by re-reading. The attempt to remember, even guessing, causes the targeted information to be more memorable once it is attained.
    4. Space out your review. You cannot strengthen a memory without forgetting. Use spaced repetition to review the information at the point of forgetting. For this to be effective, you need to lengthen your review intervals as the knowledge becomes more easily retrievable.
    5. Vary your environment. By studying or retrieving information in different environments, you’re adding complexity to your recall, providing additional cues for retrieval. The sound of an espresso machine at a coffee shop, the sight of a dog running by in the park, your kinesthetic awareness of the rhythm of a commuter train, all become connected to the topic at hand—fodder for a complex, entangled, sturdy memory.

    Learning seemed a lot simpler when we crammed! And for the short term, cramming works. But it is based on the false assumption that the brain is like a computer. If we want our learning to stick around long term, and be accessible when we need it, we must work with our brain, not against it. Then, perhaps we can harness our brain’s practically infinite capacity for learning.

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