Why is it that we can instantly recall the lyrics to our favorite songs, our favorite Christmas gift when we were eight, and our first day of college, but we can’t remember what we learned in the training course we took yesterday morning? Because the learning experience failed to connect with us in a way that prioritized moving the information into our long-term memory.
According to Kenneth Wesson, an internationally recognized education consultant and expert in the field of neuroscience, “Learning is an active process that involves sensory input to the brain, which occurs automatically, and an ability to extract meaning from sensory input by paying attention to it long enough to reach working (short-term) memory, where consideration for transfer into permanent (long-term) memory takes place.”
In terms of physiology, scientists believe our short-term memory lives in an area of our brain’s frontal lobe called the hippocampus, and our long-term memory resides in the cerebral cortex, which is the large outer area generally referred to as the brain's "gray matter."
But what factors help our brains determine if:
Science journalist and physician at Yale University School of Medicine Ashish Ranpura explains how our brains prioritize:
“We form memories [when] consolidation, attention and emotional arousal work together to determine what features of an event are important, and therefore what features will be remembered.”
The key word here is “emotion.” Let’s look back at those experiences you have no trouble remembering – the favorite Christmas gift, first day of college, and a favorite song's lyrics.
All of them spark emotion when we remember them, which is how and why they made it into our long-term memory in the first place (and why we’re still able to recall them all these years later).
Speaking of that favorite song's lyrics, Wesson explains, "When first exposed to a new song, we establish new neural connections — of the sounds, the emotional pleasure, where we heard this new song, the lyrics, the title, the artist, similar songs, etc. — to represent this novel sensory experience. However, upon hearing the same song on a second occasion, it is processed as a neurologically different experience, where established connections are re-activated as recognition."
"We now recall the song, which did not occur upon first exposure, sing along with now recognizable lyrics (also impossible during the initial exposure) and later reproduce the lyrics in the absence of any song being played. All new learning pathways are built from existing circuits and are accompanied by changes in brain physiology as a result of experience.”
Ranpura further emphasizes the impact emotion has on memory.
“From a practical perspective … we can remember something best if we learn it in a context that we understand, or if it is emotionally important to us. It is a lot easier to remember that the hypophyseal stalk connects the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland if you already know a lot about neurobiology. But it’s also an easy fact to remember if you’ve ever had a loved one who suffered from a tumor near that part of the brain.”
For those of us who design learning experiences, the message is clear. If we want the information we’re trying to convey to have fighting chance of making it into the long-term memory banks of our audience members, we have to present it in a way that appeals to their emotions.
That means creating well told, contextual stories with three dimensional characters and intriguing conflicts to ferry the concepts. If we fall back on the traditional way of teaching through dull lessons that fail to affect them, what are the chances they’ll retain what we want them to learn? Slim to none.