Your Brain and Memory

photo of big head statue in New Orleans
Me next to a big head in New Orleans

This article was inspired by a talk by Dr. John Medina at the 2014 EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative Annual Meeting. Sure, that was years ago but our brains haven’t changed yet. Read on!

Dr. John Medina, Developmental Molecular Biologist and Research Consultant at both the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University shared a few revelations about how the brain functions with an eye towards learning. What he shared is relevant whether you are a learner yourself or teach others, in the classroom or in the workplace.

Medina focused his talk on the interplay between crystallized intelligence (think of as a database of facts available to us) and fluid intelligence (the ability to focus and de-focus at will). A splendid description that helped to “crystallize” these two types of intelligence for me was to think of a jazz musician:

  • Crystallized intelligence is knowing the notes.
  • Fluid intelligence is knowing how to improvise.

As you might imagine, teaching must support both crystallized and fluid intelligence to be effective. The trick is that different behaviors influence your success in building these two types of intelligence. For crystallized intelligence:

  • Information is not fixed into long-term memory when you begin to learn it. You must repeat it.
  • Seven pieces of declarative information can stay in the immediate short-term memory in our brains for 30 seconds before it vanishes. Sometime within those 30 seconds, you need to repeat that information for it to move into short-term memory.
  • Information then stays in working memory for 2 hours. To move those pieces of information from short-term to long-term memory, you must repeat it within 2 hours.
  • Information then moves through the “nomadic phase” for up to 10 years before it is finally fixed into long-term.
  • Yes, that’s right: 10 years.

On the other hand, fluid intelligence research suggests a different and potentially complementary strategy:

  • Researchers in multiple studies have found that aerobic exercise increases fluid intelligence. One study evaluated older adults’ fluid intelligence, introduced four months of aerobic exercise, and then retested. Fluid intelligence increased by 30% to 120%.
  • The same study found no statistically significant effect of strength training on fluid intelligence, and no statistically significant effect of either type of exercise on crystallized intelligence.

So, next time that you are trying to learn something, or trying to teach others, consider the implications of what the research suggests about these two types of intelligence. Personally, I plan to start repeating what I really want to learn while jogging around the block. Repeatedly.

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