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Brain Bites – Brain Science Improves Training

Experiential learning isn’t just for fun. Diving into Elizabeth Kensinger and Andrew Budson’s book, The Science of Memory: Why We Forget and How to Remember Better, took me on an odyssey of understanding the brain and how trainers can harness its power to deliver more memorable training. It will likely come as no surprise that experiential learning is successful because it draws on the natural ways that our minds process information. Following are my highlights from their book, as well as a handy Brain Bites Infographic that will hopefully help you remember the key points and make use of brain science for training.

Memory takes effort

Memory doesn’t just happen.

“Memory is the residue of thought.”  ~ Daniel Willingham

We’ll only remember what we take time to think about. Remember being introduced to someone and forgetting their name almost instantly? It happens to all of us. To remember that name or anything else, we have to take a moment to pause, focus, and store it away.

The Memory Cycle includes forgetting!

In fact, our brains evolved to forget much of what we take in and experience. Think of all those security numbers you promptly forget after entering them into your banking app, for example. We lose those numbers because we have no further need of them. To understand how our brains rewrite and update memories, consider too how you remember what an old friend looks like. In your mind’s eye, you’ll likely see them as they looked most recently, having replaced old memories of what they looked like 10 or 20 years ago. Not only is forgetting normal, but it’s also quite helpful as it allows us to prioritize information that will help us in the future.

3 Phases of the Memory Cycle

Because our brains are more likely to forget than remember, we must consciously process new information or episodes through this cycle:

    1. Encoding – information is encoded in our brain when we learn or experience something
    2. Storage – we consolidate and store the info
    3. Retrieval – access the info when it’s needed.

Memory is a cycle, because the effort of retrieval, restarts the encoding process. To understand how we unconsciously remember, refer to the five distinct memory systems described below.

F.O.U.R. Strategies to Start the Encoding Process

These F.O.U.R. strategies can help us avoid forgetting information that we hope to retain. For the most part, encoding is an active process where we “tag” something for memory. Remembering requires that we:

  • Focus – We must want to remember and work at it. The more effort, the more memorable!
  • Organize – Chunking material into groups of related information helps because we only remember 4-7 things at a time. It also forces us to think (see above)!
  • Understand – Spend time making sense of the material also takes effort (see above).
  • Relate – Finally, we must tie the learning to something we already know or create a new “mental scaffolding” to hold those memories. [PSST: this is why travel or learning something brand new is so difficult at first.]

How memory works

The place where it happens: The Brain

Scientists are learning more and more about the makeup and complexity of the brain. Keeping it simple here, these brain parts are most critical  in the formation and storage of memories:

  • Hippocampus: Behind your ears and shaped like a seahorse, it holds short-term memories, but has limited capacity
  • Cortex: At the back of your head, it stores long-term memories.
  • Prefrontal Cortex. Near your forehead, it’s the “CEO” of your memory system.

5 Distinct Memory Systems

Memory is not one thing. Rather, we have five distinct and separate memory systems that work together seamlessly. Two of those are associated with short-term memory and three are for long-term memory.


1) Working memory—info currently “in mind” (like a phone number you need to ring).

2) Sensory memory – sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile senses; usually fade in a few minutes.


3) Episodic memory – episodes and events that happen in your life.

4) Procedural memory – “muscle memory,” repetition of movements and unconscious habits.

5) Semantic memory – facts, information, and names of things.

Storage and Retrieval

  • Storage: While we sleep, memories are off-loaded from the hippocampus to the cortex, for long-term storage. Unfortunately, the hippocampus has limited capacity, sort of like a hard drive on a computer. As such, we need to take time to process information, relate it to other knowledge, and go to sleep!
  • Retrieval: You haven’t remembered if you can’t recall it. By retrieving information, you also re-encode it!

Memory Boosters

Scientists have discovered a few tried and true ways to improve memory.

  • Exercise – “Releases growth factors and can actually enlarge the size of your hippocampus.”
  • Sleep – Sleep helps for two reasons: 1) it’s hard to pay attention when you’re tired; 2) Hippocampus has limited capacity to store new memories. When we sleep, the day’s memories move from the hippocampus to the cortex (short-term to long-term memory). Sleep has been shown to give a new perspective on a problem.
  • Positive attitude – Positive feelings aid memory, while stress tends to interrupt memory by diverting our attention to other topics.
  • Music – Music activates the brain’s motor system involved in movement (same regions involved in procedural memory), and activates your emotional and episodic memory regions, including those next to the hippocampus. It also makes you feel good.
  • Multiple Memory Systems – Using several of the 5 memory systems translates to longer-lasting memories.

Memory in a Nutshell

I realize as I assemble these notes that my effort to synthesize years of research and a digest of a book, into a single-page infographic, is laughable. And yet, by focusing on these key points, relating them to other information previously stored in my brain, and creating a colorful visual presentation, they’ve become imprinted in my memory. I hope these resources are useful to others as well.

Read More

After synthesizing these notes, I also assembled a list of training strategies and tips that draw upon this knowledge. Find these Brain Science Training Tips here.

Brain Science in Training

6 Brain Science Principles Every Trainer Must Know

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