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Why we forget things – and how not to

‘The most complex entity known to man resides between your ears.’ – Deane Alban

The brain is a mysterious and remarkable thing. There are plenty of statistics that demonstrate this. For example, I could tell you that the brain produces 50,000 thoughts per day — and disturbingly, it’s estimated that in most people, 70% of these thoughts are negative.

 I could also share that 90 minutes of sweating can temporarily shrink the brain as much as one year of ageing. Or tell you that about a quarter of our cholesterol resides in the brain, and it uses fat as it’s best source of fuel.

The problem is, you will probably forget these things almost immediately after reading them, because the brain is far from perfect.

In fact, the brain’s ability to retain and recall whatever you may have just learned is surprisingly unremarkable. Even the memories you think you do remember are unreliable. They can be altered with emotion, motivation, subtle hinting, time and a whole host of other influencers that change what you learned into what you remember.

The brain’s ability to forget, on the other hand, is phenomenal. Research indicates that within just one hour, people forget about 50% of new information; it’s 70% after 24 hours and about 90% after one week. This effect is called the “Forgetting Curve.” The curve highlights just how difficult it can be to retain new information even if you do fully grasp the topic you were studying.

Why we forget

Forgetting has an important function though. It allows your brain to clear space for something new. It’s like deleting last year’s sales database off your servers to make room for this year’s numbers. The problem is that it’s not entirely indiscriminate. The brain often chooses to remove things that you really wanted to keep. There’s nothing much to tell it which data you feel is important, it only knows the things that you use.

So, how do we train our collective brain? Are there any approaches we can take to improve our ability to remember and make it easier for ourselves and our staff to retain information that is presented to them? Or is all that sales training, coaching and conference-attending that we go through a temporary ‘feel-good’ but, ultimately, a complete waste of time?

Top tips for retention

The good new is that studies have been conducted on how to learn in a way that will allow for long-term retention. Here are some helpful takeaways.

  1. If you are trying to learn something, consider how soon afterwards you’ll be able to use that new information. Why? Because the more times a certain memory is recalled or, essentially, the more times your brain has to find information, the more likely it is to become a part of your permanent memory. In a nutshell? Use it (straightaway) or lose it.
  1. And if you didn’t learn this in school already, now’s a good time to let you know: cramming doesn’t work. Rather than stuffing your brain full in a short session, spend a little time every day on studying or learning new concepts. This allows the information to ‘trickle in’. Repeatedly visiting it again afterwards then allows the new information to become fairly permanent.
  1. Try to minimize the rest of the things  your brain might pick up on: reduce potential distractions and unnecessary new data. For example, try studying in the same place each time, keep your environment quiet, set up a routine and stick to it. When it comes to where and how you learn,  boring is good.

Have fun and get engaged

If you are training employees, there are also key steps that can be taken to optimize your impact and memorability. Although the use of PowerPoint is near ubiquitous in training, it is simply not as effective as active learning. The best case scenario is to combine both, make the session fun, and get the audience actively involved.

Active learning settings are designed to have the participants engage directly with the material and with one another. Allowing for high energy discussion not only keeps enthusiasm high for the material, but also helps keep the audience engaged throughout the session. The inclusion of humor also helps to improve retention of information.  As famous writer and physician, Alfred Mercier, once said: “What we learn with pleasure we never forget.”

Know thyself

Effective trainers should know what their strongest assets are as a presenter, and play to those strengths. Examples of these may be: great communication, expansive knowledge, unique experience in a particular area, the ability to powerfully influence, a passion for learning or educating, open-mindedness, flexibility, the knack of including creative elements in the training, or something else. Very few people are great at all of these things, but all effective trainers will have at least one of these traits and will find a way to adapt their personal style to their teaching style.

Many trainers also incorporate online material, visual aids, or handouts for the trainee to use during and after the session. This makes the material easier to access, and since we now know that the more times the learner reviews the material, the more likely they are to retain it, it’s a real advantage to have this option available.

Awareness, action and accountability

The final piece to this lies in accountability. Learning is an active process for both the trainer and the trainee, and if the information is a key part of an organisation’s strategy, then it’s vital that it be retained.

Employers should be accountable for providing the material in ways that make it easy to access, and that allow for different learning styles. Employees should be accountable for actually learning it, interacting with it, and incorporating it into their duties. A regular review of the training material along with periodic assessments can help determine whether the information was learned and is, in fact, being utilised.

Inspiration and perspiration

So it seems the real key to success in learning is about repetition and persistence. If you look at the most successful professional athletes, you will find that their training was typically rigorous from a very early age and maintained religiously over many years. The same is true for many professional vocalists, artists and top performers in any other field.

As Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” While we are not all geniuses, everyone has the ability to learn something new with the proper motivation and dedication. It’s getting our amazing but remarkably unreliable brain to remember it that makes all the difference.  

Sarah Pearce is a professional speaker, business coach, social strategist and author of Online Reputation: Your Most Valuable Asset in a Digital Age. 
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