Learning prioritization: why focusing on the important matters for memory

Do you remember what you had for dinner last week? What about the last item that you put in your grocery cart? Most of us don’t, and that’s okay. We don’t remember these things because they are insignificant. Our brains are not designed to remember this sort of mundane information because it provides little benefit for us. On the contrary, you probably remember what you had for dinner on your last date or the last time that something you ate made you feel nauseous. These types of events are more memorable because they provide valuable information for us to make good decisions in the future — to choose the best fitting partner or to avoid foods that make us feel sick.

We naturally remember important information, but not everything is important. The brain encodes events that are emotionally charged in a different way than it encodes neutral, day-to-day events. We have a sort of intrinsic highlighter to allow the most important information to stand out and to be remembered while the rest fades into the background. While emotional memories are more important and more easily remembered than others, all memories for personally experienced, past events are termed episodic memories. These are essentially “episodes” of life.

“We can’t remember every bit of information that we consume”

A different domain of memory, where we remember factual information, is called semantic memory. This can involve remembering technical details or historical facts (e.g., order of U.S. presidents). Just as with episodic memory, we can’t remember every bit of information that we consume. To effectively learn and remember factual details, the most important information should be highlighted (metaphorically or literally) and deeply processed.

How exactly should you highlight information? When learning something new, the most important aspects of the context should be extracted (see this article). For example, when studying a new language, you can’t learn the new language all at once. First, you focus on the essentials — what you need for basic communication. You might learn how to say hello and goodbye, as well as please, thank you, and sorry. You would not need to learn each variation of these phrases at the outset (e.g., hi, heya, what’s up). While you might be presented with more contextual information along with basic greetings, it doesn’t need to be immediately prioritized.

Another step, and arguably, the most crucial step, of learning effectively involves deeply processing information. Learning to use information and apply it across different contexts is a level of deeper processing. For example, when studying Spanish, you could learn more about the language pattern. You may think: how do you pronounce each letter within a word, and how are pronunciations similar and different across words?

In Spanish, the vowels follow a consistent phonetic pattern. The vowel “a” sounds like “ah” for nearly every word in Spanish (see example below). Knowing this rule and being able to apply it helps with the pronunciation of other Spanish words.

“Highlighting everything is practically the same as highlighting nothing at all”

What happens if we try to remember everything? Well, then, we don’t prioritize anything, and everything is learned at the same level. Indeed, one recent studyfound that participants who were asked to diligently try to remember every item presented to them had the same memory performance as those who were not given that instruction. Interestingly, when participants were asked to focus on only a subset of items, they remembered those items better as compared to those that they were not asked to focus on (see a simplification of this result below). The authors warn that highlighting everything is practically the same as highlighting nothing at all.

We are presented with seemingly endless information each day, but there is no way for us to effectively remember it all. We weren’t designed to remember everything that we encounter, and we don’t really need to. Instead, we should prioritize only the most important information. What are the important facts or concepts that you want to remember and why? That is what we should focus on to remember what is truly important, letting go of the rest.

Originally published at https://www.emilyhokett.blog on August 17, 2021.

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healthy sleep advocate | academic sleep researcher & writer | learning time management skills to balance the two

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Emily Hokett

Emily Hokett

healthy sleep advocate | academic sleep researcher & writer | learning time management skills to balance the two