Have you ever gone to pick up your car key, wallet, purse or any other item used on a regular basis, only to find that it is not where you were sure you had left it? And then, no matter how hard you try, you cannot access the memory of where you had actually left it? Finding, instead, that your memory insists that the place you first went to is the right place to look?

This is a common phenomena created by the way our brain stores and retrieves memories. So let’s take a quick look at how this happens and why it is important to understand how memories are made, especially when we are trying to learn something new. For memories to move from the working memory (which can only hold four pieces of information at a time) we first have to pay attention to what it is we want to remember, otherwise that piece of information will quickly be replaced by another piece of information in our working memory.

Once we have alerted ourselves to the usefulness of this particular piece of information, we have to work to retain if through repetition and use; making links between the new information and things we already know; by structuring and organising it alongside prior learning; and re-creating it in our own words and within our current framework of knowledge. In other words, reading or doing something once, will not create a long term memory. However, our long term memory contains thousands of memories, some of which lay forgotten, as if we never created them because the last, very important part of the process of memory making is the retrieval of the memory from the archives of our brain. Each time you retrieve a memory, the neural pathways to that memory become stronger, making the memory easier and easier to access. But, if we do not frequently recall the memory, it will be moved further and further from reach until it will be almost impossible to retrieve without some sort of external stimulus.

So, let’s go back to the missing car key. Why is it that we can’t remember where we left it? Why does our memory lead us back to the wrong place just because that is where we would normally leave our key? Well, the answer, of course lies in the strong neural pathway we have created in our long term memory over the days, months, perhaps years, of always putting our key in one particular place. The retrieval of this long term memory has been repeated so often that it now takes place subconsciously. The thought, ‘I need my car key’ enters your working memory and instantaneously, the strong neural pathway from your long term memory tells you where it is- the place where you always put it! Except, on this occasion, that is not where you put it. And what’s more, you paid so little attention to its new resting place that it flitted out of your working memory and into the ether, which is why you cannot now find your key.

Eventually, with a bit of searching, you will find your lost key. But what if the thing you lost, was a critical piece of learning that never made its way to your long term memory, or did get to your long term memory but was never recalled and has now receded so far that you can no longer locate it? So do encourage your children to revisit prior learning to strengthen their neural pathways and improve their recall. It could be as simple as taking one of the randomly generated Good2Learn quizzes every few days. And if they find that some information has slipped into the dark recesses of their memory and they are unable to retrieve it, then they can revisit the lesson, re-engage with the learning and re-ignite their neural pathways.

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