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Elmi Hassan goes through some scientifically backed ways to improve your revision and brain function.  University of Bristol research on memory could help in developing a drug to solve memory disorders like dementia. 

Learning is the acquisition of new knowledge or skills and memory is the retention of learned information. There is no single brain structure or molecular mechanism which accounts for all learning.

Memory can be divided into declarative and non-declarative memory. Declarative memory has a conscious aspect, which includes recalling facts and events and thus dubbed explicit memory.

Whereas the non-declarative memory, also known as implicit memory, does not have a conscious aspect but includes memories of skills and habits.

Another difference between declarative and non-declarative memory is that declarative memories are often easy to form but also easy to forget. In contrast, forming non-declarative usually requires repetition and is less likely to be forgotten.

If your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows

Studies on humans with unusually good memories suggest that the limit of the storage of declarative information is remarkably high. For example, British artist Stephen Wiltshire draws cityscapes from memory; he drew a 10-meter drawing of Tokyo in a week after only thirty minutes helicopter ride over the city.

Stephen Wiltshire drawing Singapore from memory

Researchers believe that memories form connections throughout the brain, interacting with other neurons and neural networks. Each neuron is able to form thousands of connections, which dubbed the ‘exponential storage’ effect by Paul Reber, psychology professor at Northwestern University.

Reber believes we have storage up to several petabytes. It is estimated that the human brain’s ability to store memories is equivalent to about 2.5 petabytes of binary data.

For comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows, this implies our brains cannot “get full” within our lifetime.

Professor Clea Warburton from Bristol’s School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience said “episodic memory stores an individual’s unique recollection of a specific event and is important for remembering significant events in our lives.”

Researchers from Bristol’s Schools of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience were able to specify the connection between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.

By disrupting this pathway, the researchers found that episodic memory was impaired. Episodic memory impairment is a symptom of dementia, but this research might be the basis for a neuropharmacological cognitive enhancer.

Cognitive enhancers are designed to counter the symptoms of dementia, which includes Alzheimer’s. These cognitive enhancers have the potential to enhance memory in otherwise healthy people.

Labelled diagram of the human brain

Acetylcholine (ACh) is an important neurotransmitter in the brain, which is involved in higher cognitive functions.

Research from University of Bristol, in collaboration with the National University of Ireland, Maynooth and pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co indicates that while the levels of ACh varies throughout the day; levels of ACh are highest when the brain is engaged in challenging tasks. This indicates there is a brain-wide signal to increase mental capacity.

Teachers often urge students to make up mnemonics, while they give you a cue – if you haven’t actually learnt the information then you’re overflowing your hippocampus with another neuronal network to remember those cues.

While it may seem very simple, but repeated revision of a topic is an effective way to consolidate what you’ve learnt. By repeatedly retrieving a fact, you’re strengthening the neuronal network involved in that memory.

Spaced repetition is a good way to retain information for a long time. So when revising a topic – the interval between revising a certain topic should be exponentially longer each time – after a few hours, then days, then weeks.

This also explains the reason most students forget what they revise after exams because it is not consolidated. UCLA research seems to suggest that the brain’s activity behaves as if it’s remembering something whilst asleep.

The research seems to suggest that even under anaesthesia, the neocortex (involved in higher cognitive function) is “speaking” to the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex (involved in memory), and these connections are involved in consolidating memory.

Sleep is also involved in decluttering and deleting irrelevant information, so while it is somewhat traditional for students to do all-nighters – it seems it does more harm than good.

However, revision techniques should be combined and while repetition is a good way to revise, you should actively learn too – you’ll remember information if you actively process it and comprehend it.

While research is advancing exponentially in the field of neuroscience, there is still much to learn about the brain – but every bit of research challenges the way we look at the brain. There is, unfortunately, no quick way to improve memory but looking after yourself, and getting enough sleep goes a long way.


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