A recent study carried out by researchers from the University College London in the United Kingdom has concluded that the brain is more successful at storing memories when it has been “primed” in advance to consider the meaning of what is to be stored. Neuroscientists already knew that neural activity during and immediately after an event occurred was an important factor in the success of memory storage, but this new research illustrates that one’s frame of mind prior to the event may be just as crucial. Nature.com has published a brief article today summarizing the study which itself was published in full in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
During the experiment the test subjects were shown a series of single words on a video monitor. Before each word was displayed, a symbol appeared on screen indicating to the subject that they were to either decide whether the subsequent word denoted a living or non-living object, or they were to determine the alphabetical order of the first and last letters of the word.
The participants, who were not told that they were taking part in a memory experiment, were then shown a second list of words and asked if they remembered seeing the words previously. The researchers found that the subjects were better able to recall the words that followed the living/non-living indicator versus the symbol telling them to consider alphabetical order. Their conclusion is that when the volunteers considered the meaning of the words, instead of the letters of the words, their brains were primed to store the word that followed.
Throughout the experiments the scientists monitored the subjects’ neural activity using Electroencephalography (EEG), which allowed them to see the brain activity associated with the priming. Once they had collected enough data, they were actually able to predict whether or not a subject would remember a word before the word was even displayed based on the EEG reading.
The outcome of the study may lead to more effective techniques for learning and memorization. Although the mechanism is not fully understood, the results reinforce the long-held belief that rote memorization is not nearly as effective as taking the time to understand the meaning and context of what you are trying to memorize.
Read the full article at Nature.com: “Memory aided by meaning.”