Keeping Content Sticky: Understanding how your brain remembers

This weekend I started re-reading a book I read five months ago, called Smart Thinking. I often do this – re-read books – because I know that I won't possibly remember or learn everything on a single pass, so I keep these books close by and pick them up every six months or so. It's a practice I recommend, since we all tend to forget a lot of what we read/hear/process all the time. There's an exercise in the first few chapters I'd like you to try. Right now. In your own head.

List all the vegetables you can.

How did you do it? How did you ‘remember'?

If you're like me, I don't carry that information around with me readily. More important isn't how long your list is (because you know it's longer than mine). What's more important is how you went about creating the list. If you're like me, you started with the random list of vegetables that came to mind. Maybe it was a lettuce, tomato (arguably a fruit), peas and corn. By the way, that's my list. But if you wanted to go past that, you had to push your brain to think a little more. How did you do it? Did you imagine your frig? Did you imagine making a salad? Did you imagine walking thru the produce aisle of a grocery store?

However you did it, what you likely did was pull additional information from your brain by first finding the association link that holds all that information together. Whether it was a salad, a produce aisle, or your refrigerator, your brain went there and then was able to pull from that concept all the list of vegetables you needed. Why is that important? Because it's a critical way the brain works.

Let's review the basics of how the brain remembers

First, you have that super-short-term working memory. It lasts a few seconds max and it lets you capture everything that is going on around you. But it gets filtered pretty quickly and then your brain has to decide if it's going to go into short-term memory, long-term memory, or just wait to be replaced by other observations. Short term memory can be really short, or held there for as long as you need it – assuming you're working with it.

You know what I'm talking about – it's like the way we remember someone's phone number. We repeat it over and over and we can keep it in our forefront, but once we dial it, there's a good chance we'll stop repeating it and soon it will be gone. Then we get long-term memory, and this is the stuff we really care about. Long term memory requires that our brain encode all the pertinent information (which won't be ALL the information) into electrical signals that fire across various synapses.

What's most important is that the more we use those synapses and the more the paths between them are repeated and used, the stronger the connection and the faster that material comes back to us.

Why is this important? And how can we use it?

The reason it's critical that we understand how the brain remembers things is because we can leverage it when we want to make sure our content sticks in the brains of those we're trying to educate, inform and influence. After all, you want your information to last more than an hour after you've walked away, right? So what does it mean for us if we know that long-term memory is driven by linked relationships and associations?

There's one thing you have to get right, when you want your material to stick. That's right – only one thing. Ready for it?

Tie your new information to material that's already known!

The only thing you have to get right when you want to deliver knew information is to connect it to already known information. The brain, if it can link your new info to older and well-known info, will gladly help a person remember it because it knows how to ‘file' it. This is essential to making sure your content sticks. Let's look at an example.

I used to present information to technologists about a new code generation product that worked in a brand new way and did things no one had ever seen before. Unfortunately, since no one had ever seen it before, my claims were often considered false (and quickly forgotten). So I couldn't stand up and present the material as “new” because it would have no place to stick inside someone's brain. Instead, I had to find the hooks that were already there. In the case of code generation, there was a long history of approaches, techniques and products that had existed over decades before we came along and I had to link it to all of that. The tighter I linked it to material people already knew, the easier it was for them to see this as the logical conclusion of the history in code generation. My product then because a lot more sticky.

Want to go deeper with Neuroplasticity?

There is a technical term for how the brain continually adjusts itself based on the neural pathways getting stronger via repetition. It's neuroplasticity and it's a complicated topic. But one of my favorite videos on it is below, a 2008 Google presentation by Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., who makes the material really easy to understand. I'm sure you'll like it.

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