Hack your brain

Memorise things faster and for good

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Recently I became aware of a book written by the Polish author Radek Kotarski, whose title could be translated as “Hack into the brain”. I’ve always wanted to master the art of effective studying and memorising things faster and for good. I’ve improved a lot since the times of my high school, but I’m still working on it. Hence, I felt tempted to read this book, especially because I had known Kotarski and his charisma from his YouTube channel „Polimaty”. I had a strong feeling that this book will be a good investment of my time and money. Here, I will summarise my favourite mnemonics, which I really started to use in my everyday life.

Practise like a boxing champion

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Surely you have already heard the saying “Practice makes perfect”. But how to practice? One option is the so-called “blocked practice”. A learner performs a single skill over and over and only starts practicing the next one when he has mastered the first skill. Think of a pianist who first learns how to play the C-major, then the G-major, and next the D-major scale and so on. Many athletes practise in the same way, but not Muhammad Ali. He didn’t try to only master one move. During his training, he used to mix all of the different exercises. At first, his trainer laughed at him and said that he looked like the worst boxer in the world, but actually he turned out to be one of the most significant sports figure of the 20th century. This technique of learning is called “interleaved practice”. In 2014, the scientists Rohrer, Dedrick and Burgess aimed to compare the blocked and the interleaved practice for studying maths at school. The first group of teenagers was being taught in a very organised manner, starting with the easiest formulas and exercises at the beginning, finishing with the hardest ones at the end. In the other group, the teacher didn’t spend much time on practising the easiest tasks. They moved forward, introduced more complex problems and then came back to the formula from the first lesson. Then again, they started to practice something more complicated and came back to basic exercises after some time. In this approach, the students were constantly revising and learning something new. It might sound a bit chaotic, but “blocked practice” students received 38 % on the test on average, whereas “interleaved practice” ones 72 %!

Tip #1: Don’t stick to practicing one task, alternate between the exercises to increase your success!

Be as curious as a child

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Children ask hundreds of questions and soak up knowledge like sponges. Can asking questions help us memorise information better? In the 70s two psychologists, John Bransford and Barry Stein, wanted to investigate how answers and explanations affect memorisation. The test persons were supposed to memorise over a dozen of simple sentences, for example: “A thirsty man came into a shop.”, “A tall man helped a child.” or “A strong woman ran into a building”. Then they had an unannounced test in which they were asked questions such as: “Which man came into a shop?”. The results of the quiz were very poor. In the next step, the psychologist wanted to check how helpful it would be to ask people to memorise the same sentences with explanations. Therefore, another sample group had to learn longer sentences such as: “A thirsty man came into a shop to buy a bottle of water. A tall man helped a child, because the child was too short to pick up a ball from the tree”. The results were… ambiguous. Interestingly, a few years later, another group of researchers performed a similar experiment, but this time, they didn’t impose the explanations. They asked people to make them up on their own. A possible sentence could sound like this: “A thirsty man came into a shop and drank a can of coke from a fridge in one gulp”. This time, the test scores were twice as high as before!  Making up explanations turned out to be the key to better memorising.

Tip #2: While studying, ask yourself many questions and come up with the answers and associations!

Leave your PhD office

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Which one do you think is better? Having a fixed place for studying or change to different places and surroundings? Smith, Glenberg and Bjork tried to answer this question. Students of the University of Michigan were split into two groups. Their task was to memorise forty-four letters long nouns in two 40-minute sessions. The first group was placed in the same room, while the other group changed to another room for the second round of studying. First, they were studying in a small, cluttered chamber without windows, then they moved to a middle-sized room with sunlight and mirrors. Three hours later, they wrote an unannounced test in a completely different, quite spacious room with windows that looked out on a busy street. The results were really surprising. The students that had studied twice in the same place memorised 15,9 words on average, whereas the second group memorised 24,4 words!

Tip #3: Study in different environments!

Life is too short to constantly study and forget again what we have learnt. I believe the more “tricks” we know, the better we can “hack our brain”. I hope you will try to use these techniques that I have briefly described and that you will notice a difference. And as appetite comes with eating, you might want to further explore the topic. Good luck with your studies!

Author: Beata Owczarek