Instant Recall

Let’s say that Key to the Highway by Derek and the Dominos is one of your favorite songs, as it is one of mine.  How long would it take you to hear the first few notes and recognize that it’s being played on the radio?

According to some recent research, the answer is exactly 0.1 to 0.3 seconds.  That’s virtually instantaneous.

anim_homepageThe research focused on pupil dilation and certain brain activity that was triggered by hearing a favorite, familiar song and compared it to the reaction to listening to unfamiliar tunes. The study determined that hearing even a fraction of a second of a favorite song caused pupil dilation and brain activity related to memory retrieval — which would then cause you to immediately remember every note and every lyric.  One of the researchers noted that “[t]hese findings point to very fast temporal circuitry and are consistent with the deep hold that highly familiar pieces of music have on our memory.”

Why do researchers care about the brain’s reaction to familiar music?  Because the deeply engrained neural pathways that are associated with music might be a way to reach, and ultimately treat, dementia patients who are losing other forms of brain function.

The human brain is a pretty amazing thing, and its immediate recall of music is one compelling aspect of its functioning.  But here’s the thing the researchers didn’t consider:  immediate recall isn’t limited to favorite music.  In fact, it’s provoked by familiar music, whether it’s a tune you’d happily binge listen to or whether its a piece of music that you wish you could carve out of your synapses.  If I mention the Green Acres theme song, and you then think of the first few guitar notes for that song, I guarantee that every bit of the song will promptly come to mind, whether you want it to or not.  (Sorry about that!)  And isn’t it a bit disturbing to think that, if you eventually lose your marbles some day far in the future, one of the last things to go will be the tale of the Douglases and their “land, spreading out so far and wide”?

Learning, And Remembering

What is a better way to learn from a presentation, and remember its contents:  writing notes by hand on a piece of paper, or taking notes on a laptop?  Taking notes by hand is more cumbersome, whereas adept typists can use laptops to take notes at close to a word-for-word transcription level — but does that make laptops better for comprehension and retention?

Recent research concludes that taking notes by hand enhances learning.  Why?  Researchers think that because writing is much slower than typing, students hoping to capture content must filter, summarize, and focus on the key points as they take notes, and those additional mental steps in the process have the effect of better engraving the content into their memories.  Students taking notes on a laptop, in contrast, try to take down everything the speaker says, as if they are just another cog in a recording device, and therefore the words don’t have as much impact. 

IMG_2446Interestingly, the study showed that the comprehension advantage is reflected not only on tests given immediately after the learning experience, but also on tests taken weeks later.  The theory is that students who review their own handwritten notes are given more effective memory cues than students who simply review the verbatim transcription.

These results don’t surprise me.  Handwritten notetakers must be active listeners who are engaged in the presentation, and active listeners always capture more content.  But there is more to the notetaking advantage than that.  I think the physical act of writing enhances comprehension and recollection because your brain has to be reading and thinking about meaning as it controls the hand that is writing the note.  Multiple senses are involved:  you hear the words being spoken, you move your hand to write them, you see your writing on the page, and you speak the words in your inner voice.  If you take additional steps — like adding stars or underlines to highlight key points — the cognitive impact of the process is that much greater.   

I’ve always been a notetaker; even now, I like to write myself notes to remind myself of tasks rather than typing them into a notes application on my computer.  For me, at least, the physical actions tie directly into the mental process and help me remember.  Plus, I like the tactile sensation of crumpling up notes after I’ve completed a task and throwing them away.

Get Some Sleep!

It’s hard to imagine that we need scientific studies to encourage us to sleep, but the evidence is mounting that getting enough shut-eye at night has crucial, lasting benefits for human beings.

The latest study examines the role of sleep in improving memory and learning.  The study found that sleep promotes the creation of brain synapses — the connections between the brain’s neurons — that are essential to learning.  That study follows countless others that demonstrate the physical and mental benefits of sleep — a state that allows the brain to discard toxins formed by daily activity, helps us recharge and reduce the risk of many different diseases, and restores the body to the ancient circadian rhythms that human beings have followed since the dawn of the species.

I’ve always tried to make sure that I get enough sleep.  In law school, on the day before our final exams when some of my classmates would stay up until all hours cramming, I  put my books aside and went to bed early so I could be fresh and ready for the big test tomorrow.  I always felt like my rested state gave me an advantage in terms of energy and mental focus, and I’ve tried to carry through that practice in my career, too.

Many of us — in our zeal to be SuperMom, or our focus on our jobs, or our desire to cram every conceivable bit of activity into the waking hours — have cut significantly into our sleep time.  Obviously, it’s a mistake.  If you want to help your kids do better in school or on the job, make sure they get a good night’s sleep.  And instead of staying up to watch a late night talk show or another Seinfeld rerun, why not hit the sack yourself?

A Head Full Of The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father Theme Song

Humans never truly know whether they are normal or weird.  Although we may have many friends and close family members, we still live largely within our own heads, perceiving the world in our own way.

The only way to know for sure whether we are unusual or pretty much like everyone else is to ask other humans pointed, and embarrassingly self-revealing, questions.  Like:  does anyone else occasionally find themselves replaying the insipid theme song to The Courtship of Eddie’s Father in their heads, for no apparent reason?

People let me tell ya ’bout my best friend . . . .

I always despised that show, with its cloyingly cute little kid and Bill Bixby as the prototype ultra-sensitive Dad and the blatant attempts to elicit “Awwww!” reactions from the audience.  I hadn’t thought of the show in years, but yesterday morning there it was, the chipper, annoying, Harry Nilsson theme song, playing through my head as I walked up the back stairs of our building.  And once it was bouncing around in there, it was impossible to get it out.

He’s my one boy, my cuddly toy, my up, my down, my pride and joy . . . .

Some cue caused the brain neurons to fire and retrieve the theme song from an awful ’60s TV show.  But what the hell was it?  And, even more disturbing, what other trivial bits of stray popular culture lie locked securely within my brain tissue, ever to be forgotten?  The names of all members of the original cast of Laugh-In?  The words to The Monkees’ Auntie Grizelda?  The precise dialogue of the disturbing dinner scene of Eraserhead?

Whether we’re talkin’ man to man or whether we’re talkin’ son to son . . . .

Gah!