Jamie's Blog

Jamie's Blog

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This blog is for anyone who wants to improve their general knowledge in record time.

Why our brains are ill-suited for quizzing!

March 2011Posted by Jamie Miller Tue, March 08, 2011 19:00:28

So, one of my interests (in case you haven't guessed!) is working out how the human brain (with all its faults and peculiarities) can be manipulated to memorise huge amounts of trivia! smiley

Because one thing that has always been quite apparent to me is that the human brain is not designed well to retain trivia and general knowledge facts.

I mean our memory does peculiar things! For example, once I remember sitting down at a different desk in my old office and being unable to enter my Windows log-in password. This was the same password I had entered day-in, day-out for over a year... and yet the moment my surroundings had been altered slightly, my brain failed to recall the password!

I also notice how my brain fails to concentrate some times - wandering off on daydreams and tangents!

So when I saw a book on the evolutionary 'kinks' in the development of the human brain, I knew I had to give it a read.

I honestly think that understanding the peculiarities of the human brain (from an evolutionary standpoint and a personal standpoint) is very helpful in developing a successful method of quiz revision.

So the book I'm reading right now is called Kluge: The Haphazard Constuction on the Human Mind by Gary Marcus - and it really got me excited about how the findings of this book might apply to quizzing!

The book confirms the contextual-nature of our memory. Unlike a computer memory which is organised like a giant map, with each item assigned a specific location, our memories are less systematic - and driven by contextual cues instead.

This is why even the most robotic-like quiz-players are still prone to the occassional slip-up: the cues that stimulate the relevant facts in the quiz-players' brain stimulate other facts at the same time, causing confusion.

In relating this to learning trivia facts, there are a few things that might be worth considering (and these just my own thoughts!):

1. If you're always quizzing in the same room in your house, you may not be doing yourself any favours! The facts you're trying to remember may be anchoring themselves to specific visual cues in the room, rendering you a less-able quizzer in a different setting. You should get used to recalling trivia facts in a range of settings so that the cues which stimulate the relevant facts are quality cues (i.e. not visual cues, which are of no help if you're outside of your usual quiz setting).

2. If you think of the facts you learn as little octopuses with little arms growing off of them, you have to work on improving the quality of the arms - the cue-grabbers - which bring that particular fact to the forefront of your mind. For example, I cannot remember what I had for breakfast two days ago because the relevant cues - i.e. the word 'breakfast', etc. - stimulate every memory I have of eating breakfast, which all merges into one big usless blur!

(I'm pretty sure octopuses have arms not legs - but other trivia addicts, feel free to correct me!)

Anyway, these were just some of my thoughts when reading the book. Let me know what you think!

Without sounding like a shameless plug, some of the exercises in my own book should help improve the quality and efficiency by which your brain classifies a trivia fact.

Oh and BTW, Marcus' book also explains some of that daydreaming too, citing the "slopping integrations between our ancestral, reflexive set of goal-setting mecahnisms and our evolutionary more deliberative system." So there you have it!