Memory, Social Cognition, and Predicting the Future

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A recent article in Harvard Magazine reports on the research of psychology professor, Daniel Schater, who is delving into  memory, social cognition and how the mind imagines the future.

From the article:

During the past decade, Schacter says, a revolution has occurred in the field of memory science: researchers have shown that memory is responsible for much more than the simple recall of facts or the sensation of reliving events from the past. “Memory is not just a readout,” he explains. “It is a tool that’s used by the brain to bring past experience to bear when thinking about future situations.”

In fact, Schacter continues, memory and imagination involve virtually identical mental processes; both rely on a specific system known as the “default network,” previously thought to be activated only when recalling the past.

Of course, this makes sense. Why wouldn’t the brain utilize its resource of past experiences to anticipate the future and to imagine possibilities? Schater and colleagues began to wonder if these processes applied to social cognition and how individuals might predict other people’s behaviors.

They developed and implemented an experiment to determine what parts of the brains were activated when participants were tasked with thinking about how a person might behave in a variety of different situations.

Again, from the article:

The researchers concluded that memory and social cognition therefore work in concert when individuals hypothesize about the future behavior of others. The brain regions responsible for forming “personality models” and assigning them identities are intrinsically linked to the memory/imagination systems that simulate the past and future.

While it is too premature to draw any conclusions about possible implications for education and learning environments, it is worth noting that students, who are deeply embedded in dynamic and sometimes quite challenging social situations, are employing a number of cognitive functions throughout their day. When considering the complexity of the mental processes being utilized, it is no wonder that so many students find the kind of schooling that focuses primarily on fact memorization to be mind numbingly boring.

Perhaps this vein of research can lead to a better understanding of empathy and what types of experiences might build up students’ brains with the sorts of memories that help them better predict and imagine the future they want for themselves.

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Resources for Improving Your Long Term Memory

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The following is a guest post by Dr. Craig Pohlman, Director of Mind Matters at Southeast Psych. You can view the original post here.

These days, it seems like there are no limits to what our genius gadgets (like computers, iPhones, tablets, calculators, etc.) can do.  So, is human memory even as important anymore?  The short answer to this is yes.

Even with all of the tools to which we have access, we still need our own memory for a variety of academic and other tasks.  Here’s a quick overview of the components of memory:

  • Short term memory holds a small amount of incoming information for a limited period.
  • Active working memory holds information in your mind while working with it at the same time, such as steps in a process.
  • Long term memory stores and retrieves information over a long period.

Both active working memory and long term memory are used extensively in academic activities, including reading decoding, reading comprehension, spelling, written expression, math operations, and math reasoning.  If you struggle with memory, there are plenty of strategies you can use to improve and to make these academic activities a little more manageable.

Last week, we presented tips for improving long term memory and before that, we listed ideas for boosting active working memory.  Here is a list of resources you can use to get more information about improving long term memory:

  1. Sum Dog – This website, www.sumdog.com, offers free games to make math fact practice fun.
  2. Quizlet – This website, www.quizlet.com, offers tools to help you study anything.  You can study words using flashcards, play games to learn and practice important course material, and test yourself to see if you are ready for success.
  3. “Thirty Days Has September: Cool Ways to Remember Stuff” – This book by Chris Stevens provides tips for memorizing across the curriculum.  Specifically, this book is helpful for younger students.
  4. “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge: The Book of Mnemonic Devices” – This book by Rod L. Evans presents tips for memorizing across topics and is appropriate for all ages.
  5. Math Fact Grid – Web resources, such as www.mathisfun.com, offer free printable math fact grids (for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division).  These can be used to practice and reference important math facts.

Exercising your memory (just like you would exercise your muscles) will help to make it stronger over time.  Visit www.sepmindmatters.com for more information.

Dr. Craig Pohlman is the Director of Mind Matters at Southeast Psych and the author of “How Can My Kid Succeed in School?”  Stay connected: Mind Matters Facebook | @MindMatters_SEP

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How the Brain Retains (Infographic)

The folks over at mindflash developed this infographic about how and where the brain stores it’s information. While much of the brain’s information storage system remains a mystery, it is important to remember (see what we did there?) that memory is varied, nuanced, and often associative. Working memory is different than short or long term memory and what students take away from an experience or recall about it later, cannot be dictated by anyone else. They construct knowledge and memory themselves. It is why, as educators, we must be conscientious of providing environments and experiences that are meaningful, relevant, and engaging to them.

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What’s Up with Kate? (Part 2)

Last week we told you about Kate, a 6th grade student with some learning challenges.  Kate is earning good grades, but she really has to work hard for everything – seemingly much harder than her peers.  She struggles to retain new vocabulary words, recall information from reading passages, follow multi-step directions, and master math facts.

So what’s really going on with Kate?  We got some terrific responses to last week’s post, with thoughtful analyses of Kate’s challenges as well as creative strategies for using her strengths and affinities to help her.  Here’s what we think:

The Good News

Kate has strengths in expressive language and writing.  She is also very creative, a function of higher order cognition.  She enjoys graphic design and computers, indicators that spatial ordering could be a strength for her.  She also loves animals, especially cats.  We’d want to continue to encourage her in these areas, and take advantage of these strengths and affinities when coming up with strategies to help Kate. (See the comments on last week’s blog for some great ideas on how to do this!)

Getting at the Root of the Problem

As many of our readers suggested in their comments, memory seems to be an underlying theme behind Kate’s learning issues. While retrieving information from long-term memory is okay, getting the information into long-term memory is a challenge that is showing up when she studies new spelling and vocabulary words and tries to master her math facts. Summarizing what she reads also relies on functions of memory, including active working memory. Weak active working memory could also be making it difficult for Kate to follow multi-step directions. 

Talking to Kate

The first step we’d take is to discuss with her the reasons behind some of her difficulties in reading and the resulting academic struggles. It’s important to highlight Kate’s strengths as well as the areas in need of improvement.  As one of last week’s readers alluded to, we’d also want to foster her confidence that she can succeed in these areas.

We’d talk with Kate about the different types of memory, and tell her that she has difficulty “getting things into” her memory. We might make this idea more concrete by using an analogy such as putting clothes in a dresser or papers in a file so she can easily find them later.  We’d share with her that subjects like social studies and science have a lot of factual information and more memory demands than other subjects, which is why she struggles more in these areas.

Working toward Success

As we mentioned earlier, we’d want to capitalize on her strengths and interests when thinking about strategies to use with Kate.  Here’s a few examples:

  • Support Kate’s interest in animals by having her read about a species or particular animal and practice summarization skills and memory strategies by role-playing as a zoologist. 
  • In addition to supporting Kate’s art activities, give her the opportunity to work with experts in set-design and construction, so that she will see multi-step processes and instructions at work.

Other strategies you might try with Kate include …

  • Help with reading – Provide her with some basic accommodations in reading assignments to help her experience some success in class and to improve her learning of the content. For example, give her outlines – possibly partially-completed – from text book chapters to guide her to important information.  As one reader mentioned, graphic organizers, charts, and drawings might also work well for Kate.  Have her save these “tools” to study for tests.  These tools might vary based on the subject.  For example, in history, she may benefit from making timelines or creating cause-effect flow charts.  In math, she may benefit from making reference cards with the technical vocabulary words of an upcoming lesson.  One reader also recommended using visuals to help Kate remember math facts (e.g. the program “Nine Lines”).
  • Help with tests – Give Kate specific guidance in what is expected of her on tests and assignments. For example, instead of just asking Kate about the author’s intent in a story, provide instruction to her: “The next few questions will ask you about the author’s intentions in writing the story. Use what we learned about the author’s feelings about the subject to help you understand her intentions. Use facts in the story to back up your conclusions.”
  • Help with vocabulary – Limit the number of new vocabulary words she’s asked to learn at one time. Too many vocab words can be overwhelming for her, especially if other rules are introduced at the same time. For example, the word endings for action, suspicion, and suspension all sound the same, but are spelled differently. Some students find it easier to practice these rules one at a time.  One of last week’s readers also suggested having Kate “visualize” her vocab words.

See the comments on last week’s blog entry for more great strategies for working with kids like Kate.  What strategies would you use?  What are some other ways we could leverage her strengths and affinities?  If you haven’t done so already, share your ideas with us by leaving a comment below!

Related links:

Summer Blog Series Post #2: The Role of Memory in Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is one of the most complex academic skills. Skilled readers construct meaning by synchronizing a bottom-up approach to reading (decoding words fluently and accurately) with a top-down approach (using prior knowledge and experience during reading).

Neurodevelopmental factors:

Reading comprehension involves a variety of neurodevelopmental functions, including attention, memory, language, and higher order cognition. In this post, we’re going to focus on the role of memory.

Memory:

While reading, we must hold important information and concepts in our minds. We must process words, sentences and paragraphs together in order to gain full meaning of what we’re reading. In addition, we must call up relevant information we already know. Memory is essential in helping us comprehend as we read, make associations between prior knowledge and new information, and remember that same information at a later time, such as during a test.

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with the memory demands of reading:

The student …

  • Is able to pick out main ideas
  • Paraphrases/summarizes well
  • Holds onto the beginning of a story while reading the end
  • Keeps in mind the plot of a story while working on a single part of a paragraph
  • Easily learns new vocabulary words and definitions

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with the memory demands of reading:

The student …

  • Feels overwhelmed by the number of ideas presented
  • Retains only fragments of what was read
  • Can restate the gist of ideas, concepts, or directions, but not the details
  • Loses the meaning of a passage when looking up the definition of an unknown word

Strategies to help students struggling in this area:

  • Have students read in pairs, alternating between passages and then switching parts to re-read the text.
  • Have students take quick notes that describe the main idea of what they are reading. For example, have students stop to summarize what they’ve read after each paragraph. This approach will help ensure that students are recording important information in their minds.
  • Stress self-monitoring of comprehension while reading, by encouraging students to ask themselves: “Is this passage about what I thought it was going to be about?” “Have I linked what I just read to the parts I read earlier?,” etc.
  • Teach students how to create useful notes that reinforce understanding and help to trigger information recall at a later time. For example, teach students how to create concept maps based on their reading, as one technique for consolidating and organizing what they’ve read. Have students save their maps, and use them as study tools for upcoming tests.

We’d love to hear what strategies you’ve used to help students struggling with the memory demands of reading.  Leave a comment below with your ideas!

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series

  1. More information and strategies about the role of memory in reading comprehension (See “Tips to Help” links for more strategies!)
  2. General information about the neurodevelopmental demands of reading
  3. Research on active working memory and reading
  4. Reading resources on the web