Recalling memorized material

by Craig Munns

Can you explain the following phenomena, and how I might take advantage of it?

I have discovered that when I am learning a new physical skill, or memorizing written material, that my recall initially improves slightly, then, even as I continue to rehearse, gets worse.

I haven't figured out how long this continues, but it seems to last at least a day. After that, even if I haven't been rehearsing, my recall improves to near perfect.

I have noticed this phenomena specifically when learning a new kata while I was practicing kempo, and at another time when I was memorizing lines for a play.

Initially, there would be some small improvement in my recall. Then after a few rehearsals, it would get noticeably worse. After struggling with this problem for some time, and then taking a break of even a few days, on my next attempt my recall would be instantly near total.

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Jan 15, 2013
Memory Consolidation & Spaced Learning
by: Douglas (MIT)

Craig, your observation may be related to the phenomenon of memory consolidation. Consolidation is the process through which your brain "fixates" or saves new knowledge in long-term memory. I do think you can use an understanding of consolidation to your advantage.

There are two phases of consolidation: "synaptic" consolidation (the early phase), followed by "systems" consolidation.

During initial learning, your brain stores the new material in the hippocampus temporarily via synaptic consolidation. This process begins within a few hours of learning and initiates chemical and physical changes in the brain that "map" the new memories onto networks of neurons. Then, during the following week or more, the hippocampus transfers the hippocampal memories to more permanent storage in your brain's neocortex through the systems consolidation process.

I'd guess the period of early improvement you describe corresponds to the beginning stages of the synaptic consolidation phase. I'm not sure why continued rehearsal makes recall worse for you during this phase - UNLESS it's because your brain is getting “burned out” by excessively long study/practice sessions.

If this is the case, you might benefit from breaking up your study/practice sessions into multiple, shorter sessions. This is known as learning by spaced repetition.

The reason your recall is much better after a day or two is, I think, simply this: You laid the groundwork in the beginning through your intensive study/practice session(s); then, during sleep and the passage of a day or more, the biochemical and physical changes to your brain initiated during synaptic consolidation have had time to strengthen, and your deeper long-term storage may have begun to take hold through the systems consolidation process.

This phenomenon of consolidation that you have observed in your own learning is well known and perfectly normal, by the way.

Quintilian, a Roman teacher of rhetoric 2,000 years ago, noted

“... the curious fact that the interval of a single night will greatly increase the strength of the memory.”

The question is, how to optimize it?

Well, as I mentioned, you may want to break up your study sessions. If you find your attention starting to wander or your physical/mental energy decreasing after, say, 45 minutes or an hour of study/practice, then take a short break and switch gears.

A few hours later, resume your study/practice of that same subject. In other words, you'd probably remember more from three 1-hour study/practice sessions spread throughout the day than one marathon 3 hour session.

And, since the transfer of memories from the hippocampus to the neocortex (permanent storage) can take a week or more, you'll likely benefit from revisiting or reviewing the material again, at least briefly, every few days.

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