The mechanisms by which different types of memories are established in our brain and how to leverage the amount and timing of key neurochemicals and hormones, such as adrenaline (aka epinephrine) and cortisol, to improve your learning and memory abilities.

It also includes 8 Science-Based tools to enhance learning and memory!

Understanding Memory

Memory is about placing our life into context and about how immediate experiences relate to previous and future ones.

It is a bias in which perceptions (certain activation of neurons) will be replayed again in the future.

We are constantly being bombarded with different sensory stimuli: each one of these stimuli are converted into electricity and chemical signals by the nervous system.

Memory formation

Each thing we remember is linked to something by either a close, a medium, or a distant association.

Hebb’s postulate: if a sequence of neurons is active at the same time, that would lead to a strengthening of the connections between those neurons — what fires together wires together.

If you encourage the co-activation of neurons (having neurons fired at roughly the same time) it leads to a bias in the probability that those neurons will be active again.

Different types of memory

Short-term memory (working memory): for example, the ability to keep a chain of numbers for a short period, but you wouldn’t expect to remember it the next day.

Long-term memory: ability to commit certain patterns of information over long periods of time (even years later).

Explicit vs Implicit Memory

Implicit memory and explicit memory are both types of long-term memory.

Explicit memory: information that you have to consciously work to remember is known as explicit memory

Explicit Procedural memories: They involve movement and action patterns.

Implicit memory (non-declarative memory): does not require the conscious or explicit recollection of past events or information, and the individual is unaware that remembering has occurred. It is information that you remember unconsciously and effortlessly.

All explicit memories can be moved from explicit to implicit.

Hippocampus

The hippocampus is the site in your brain where explicit declarative memories are formed.

Without the hippocampus, you can’t create these new memories.

Implicit memories are formed and stored in other areas of the brain (cerebellum). That’s why when a person has brain damage in the hippocampus they can still remember how to ride a bike, but they will not be able to recall meeting a new person.

Amygdala

Associated with threat detection and what sorts of events in the environment are novel.

It detects correlations between events in the environment and what’s going on in the brain.

It strengthens connections in the brain very easily.

8 Science-Based Tools

1. Repetition

Learning curves: how many repetitions of something are required in order to remember something

With repetition, we activate certain sequences of neurons, which lays down a memory.

Just sheer repetition is sufficient to learn.

Consistency and Intensity to create a memory

Most of the time when we learn something, it’s because existing neurons (not new ones) strengthen their connections thru co-activation OR very strong activation once and only once (one-trial learning).

Why do we remember things and not others?

It’s only with a lot of repetition or with extremely strong activation of a given neural circuit that we will create new memories.

2. Emotion Saliency

Emotion is the way by which we can enhance memories.

Repetition’s always going to work. The problem is people don’t have the time or the patience to go for this route.

How to Accelerate repetition-based learning?

If you evoke the release of adrenaline after learning something, you improve the retention of the information much better.

  1. Study: humans read a text. 1 group read a mundane story. Another group read something that could evoke an emotional response in the person reading it. When they were asked to recall, the second group remembered far more.
  2. Condition-placed avoidance: when you avoid a particular location.
  3. Condition-placed preference: when you go to a particular location to have the same experience.
  4. You can get one trial learning for positive events and for positive events.

3. Adrenaline and Cortisol

It is the emotionality evoked by an experience that dictates whether you are going to learn it quickly or not.

High adrenaline allows memories to be stamped down quickly. It is not the emotion, but the neurochemical state (spike in adrenaline and cortisol) that the emotion provokes.

The more adrenaline released, the better the learning.

It is not good to chronically increase adrenaline during and after the learning bout. The key is to have the adrenaline relatively low and spike it afterward.

Note: Chronic stress is detrimental to learning whereas acute and sharp stress enhances learning.

How to spike adrenaline?

4. Caffeine

It creates alertness by two mechanisms:

  1. It blocks the effects of adenosine (responsible for sleepiness and fatigue).
  2. Increases the transmission of epinephrine.

Caffeine also upregulates the efficacy of dopamine receptors. Dopamine is responsible for desire, craving, and pursuit.

The best time to evoke the release of these chemicals (if the goal is to enhance learning), is immediately after the learning.

So, drink your coffee after learning or very late on the learning bout.

5. Sleep and Naps

The neuroplasticity occurs during sleep

Brief naps and NSDR protocols after learning enhance the rate of learning and memory. They don’t need to happen immediately after learning. They can be even hours away.

It is here that the strengthening of the neural circuits occurs.

6. Exercise

Cardiovascular exercise increases dentate gyrus neurogenesis (creation of new neurons).

The dentate gyrus is important for memory formation and consolidation.

General recommendation: 180–200 minutes of zone 2 cardio a week.

Cardio indirectly improves the ability of the dentate gyrus to create new neurons, by improving blood flow.

Exercise effects

Hormones from bone: the bones make chemicals that travel in the bloodstream.

Cardio exercise releases osteocalcin and encourages the formation and maintenance of connections within the hippocampus.

Load-bearing exercise is important to induce the release of osteocalcin.

When is the best time to exercise for learning?

If it’s going to cause a big spike in adrenaline (serious effort), do it after learning.

If you are doing exercise to enhance blood flow and release of osteocalcin, do it 1–3hours prior to the attempt to learn.

7. Mental Snapshots and Photographs

Photographic memory: people with this skill are not so good at learning from other types of sensory stimuli, like listening. And also are not good at learning physical movements.

“Super recognizers”: great ability to recognize faces. Facial recognition happens in the fusiform gyrus.

When you take photos willingly, there’s enhanced memory for those objects later on. However, it degrades auditory memory. It doesn’t matter whether you keep or delete the photos.

8. Meditation

Study: 1 group did a 13-minute long meditation, and 1 group listened to a podcast.

Takeaway: 8 weeks of 13-minute meditations had a significant effect on learning, attention, memory, mood, and emotion regulation. You need to do it for at least 8 weeks.

Caveat: Meditation has a high attentional load… it requires a lot of pre-frontal activity. Increasing the levels of attention may inhibit your ability to fall asleep and have good quality sleep.

The timing of meditation is critical: Do it early in the day so you don’t worsen your sleep.

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