How our brains encode information

Michelle Miller

by Michelle Miller
Director of the First Year Learning Initiative with University College 

Of all the things our minds and brains do, memory may be the most important thing.

There are many factors that determine what we’ll remember and what we will forget in any given situation, but a major driver is attention.

The more researchers seek to understand how memory works, the more they realize that it’s hard to even separate memory systems from attentional systems.

This is especially true for learning new information, a process called encoding. Many theorists believe that encoding something new is unlikely without some degree of focused attention. And this capacity for focused attention is fairly narrow, so that you can really apply it only sequentially and to a very limited number of items.

Strictly speaking, the brain can multitask, but most of the things we process simultaneously are those that don’t require focused attention. So memory is greatly improved when we focus, and yet, many of us kid ourselves about just what we can manage with our limited attention, and we tend to see ourselves as exceptional when it comes to these limitations.

In my current work, I’m attempting to define some of these key misconceptions we have – such as, that we can learn passively “by osmosis,” or that some people are just exceptional at being able to juggle lots of inputs at once.

I’m also looking at whether these beliefs connect in any way to behaviors such as talking on the phone while driving or texting while you’re in a class, but as I mentioned, we can only do so many things at once! The purpose is to better understand what people think about their own attention and memory capacities, and to design interventions that can help change some of these beliefs.

Editor’s note: The above blog first appeared on Academic Minute on April 23.