How the Brain Learns & Remembers

According to the latest brain research, it's time to overhaul our kids' study habits.  OHSU Neuroscientist, Dr. Larry Sherman, joined us today to talk about how the brain learns and remembers and to tell us the best way to study.  As you may have guessed, cramming for tests is NOT the way to go!

How We Learn & Remember

Q: So most people think that when we are trying to learn something or when our kids are studying for a test we should find a quiet work space, stay there and focus on one thing at a time. Is that true?

A: No. A number of new studies have shown that altering the room where you study can actually help with retention. In fact, it is best to study the same material in two very different locations if you can.  This stimulates the brain to associate the material one studies with more than just one environment, broadening the neural scaffolding involved in the learning process.
The idea of focusing on just one specific thing before moving on to the next has also been challenged. It turns out the brain is better at retaining information when it is placed in a broader context.  So, by studying one type of math problem over and over, the brain doesn’t put that problem into a broader context.  But if you mix things up a bit you remember it all better.  A great example is a study where students in an art history class were taught different genres of art in two different ways:  One group was shown many examples of the same genre over and over then they moved on to the next.  The other group was shown multiple genres at the same time.  That group remembered which genre was which much better.

Q: So many people like to cram for tests.  Is that effective?

A: The problem with that is that you score well on the test the next day, but then the information is gone.  Studies have shown that on subsequent tests, like final exams, it is as though the students have never even seen the material.  The best way to study is a little at a time, spaced over a long period like a week or two.  What’s more, it is often best to study material for a period of time then not think about it for a while.  Sometimes forgetting something briefly then coming back to it and studying it again is the most effective way to retain information.
Q: So what happens in our brains when we are trying to learn something new?

A: The studying strategies I mentioned are all ways to convert short-term memory into long-term memory – something that we now know involves actual changes in the structure of the brain.  We used to think that the brain was a very stable structure that did not change much over time.  Now we know that connections between nerve cells – called synapses – are constantly changing throughout life and that these synapses form new circuits in the brain as we learn new things and are required for our long-term memory. 
We also now know that new neurons are generated in learning centers in the brain throughout life and that these new neurons are required to learn new things.  This is a process called neurogenesis.

Q: Can changes in these processes explain learning and memory problems in some people?

A: Yes.  In fact, learning and memory problems linked to alcoholism and drug abuse are now known to involve changes in neurogenesis and in synapses.  These changes can also affect developing fetuses exposed to drugs and alcohol during pregnancy and can have long-term consequences for brain development. 
Synapses and neurogenesis are also affected during aging and in certain neurodegenerative disease, like Alzheimer’s disease.
Q: Are there interventions that can protect synapses and the formation of new neurons?

A: Yes. There are numerous new drugs being tested in clinical trials that target synapses.  My own research at OHSU is focused on testing if it is possible to improve learning and memory in conditions where neurogenesis is blocked.  In particular, we believe that we may have uncovered why patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy often develop learning and memory problems.  We are looking at a new class of drugs to see if they can protect cancer patients from these effects.



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