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#Neurominute – Forming a Memory

A profile of a human head with a gear coming out if the top and the text: Forming a Memory

Higher education professionals spend our adult lives learning subject matter and becoming experts in content. Another important role for educators is to understand basic elements of the brain and strategies to help student brains learn successfully. If most medical professionals are required to understand basic gross anatomy, perhaps professional educators should understand basic brain anatomy? Educators are not just teaching content like accounting, marketing, or finance: we train brains and shape minds. As educators, we may view the brain as a complex organ that controls and coordinates our mental and physical systems. And we may consider the mind as our psychological sense of self, our “mindsight,” or the part of our brain that thinks about itself.

Ground breaking research from Neuroscientist and Professor Wendy Suzuki PhD, of New York University, tells us memories are formed in cortical areas of the brain surrounding the hippocampus and amygdala found in the entorhinal cortex. The entorhinal cortex is located in the medial or middle part of the temporal lobe. The temporal lobe is located closest to the ear. Structures in the temporal lobe are important for memory, language, and hearing, along with many other functions. These cortical areas act like a “gateway” for memory formation. The hippocampus is a prime area for the brain to form new memories (to learn), along with the amygdala. These cortical areas surrounding the hippocampus are important connectors for memories to form and endure. In short, neurons (cells) in the brain that fire together, wire together to form new learning.

We have different kinds of memory processed in the medial temporal lobe including declarative memory or those forms of memory that are consciously recalled like semantic memory for facts and episodic memory that recalls events. As educators, we may appreciate that most learning in a school environment is declarative. Four strategies or practices to help students reinforce and recall declarative memory are:

Repetition. The more we recall a memory, the stronger it becomes. Repetition in a course or learning experience (ex. announcements, email reminders) strengthen neural connections allowing neurons to resist interference from other memories (to focus) and general degradation (or forget). Repetition engages specific neural networks (the connectors mentioned above) related to our attention systems. Consider the 5 Rs: Read. Recite. Repeat. Remember. Rehearse.

Association. To help learners remember new information, we must associate with material students know or recently learned (think scaffolding). The more associations we form around the information, the stronger the memory becomes, and the easier the information is retrieved. For the learning brain, more associations means more clues to discover and remember. The brain stores and recalls information in modular fashion. For example, imagine we are teaching a horticultural class on a rose. How many different associations may we make to the flower? Color, fragrance, thorns, prom memory, my wife’s first name…the more associations made, the more clues a learner may retrieve.

Emotion. The anatomy of the brain is (mostly) intricately wired for areas close to one another to work together. Early researchers referred to brain architecture as Mind Mapping, leading to the phrase, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Memories with positive emotional resonance are distinct for students because the amygdala and hippocampus work together to form longer lasting memories. This feature is evolutionary for survival. For example, we may learn that fire is good for warmth or fire is harmful to touch. As the human brain evolved over the past 250,000 years, our brains sent signals to the hippocampus reinforcing learning associated with salient emotional experiences. As educators, we help create and reinforce these learning experiences for students through our dispositions, attitudes, expressions, and mostly, our words and actions. For example, taking time to thoroughly explain how to solve a problem to a student through several and varied examples that s/he relates positively toward is a major emotional win in any learning environment.

Novelty. The brain is wired to focus attention on novelty or new ideas. New information explained in a different or unusual, fun or light-hearted way attracts attention for the learner’s memory, and reinforces to the brain that learning new information is an exciting journey. For example, I recall my son’s middle school science teacher had students build a replica of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing Module, the Eagle, in their classroom, out of cardboard, construction paper, and wooden dowels that filled a classroom for weeks with joyful science memories for excited students. Successful educators treat learning as a memorable journey through novel experiences.

Finally, we know now from a variety of studies, that cells in the hippocampus signal the formation of new associative memories, like the rose example above, by changing their firing rate in response to these learned associations. For example, we meet a new friend named Matt. We associate Matt’s name with facial features or expressions (Matt has thick hair like a doormat), then a new group of cells in the hippocampus fire specifically to that newly learned name–face association. This type of learning is brain-targeted and we will discuss more in a future blog.

Dr. Mark F. Hobson is Senior Associate Dean of Business Programs at Southern New Hampshire University and has 25 years’ business administration experience in private industry, education and public administration. He holds advanced degrees in Business and Education, a doctorate in Business Administration, and is pursuing a doctorate in Higher Education Administration.

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