The Story of Rehearsal

First published at February 28, 2015

Have you ever suddenly had an urge to snack on something from the fridge, then thirty seconds later found yourself staring at the milk wondering what you’re doing in front of an open fridge? Or perhaps a friend you see regularly at the gym says hi to you at the grocery store and you wonder why this stranger is so friendly? Despite the number of times you’ve practiced remembering her face at the gym, the rehearsal does no good when you leave the building. Close the fridge and walk back to where you were and chances are you know exactly what you went to the fridge to get. Study experts recommend having a specific location for learning because certain brain circuits will remember that it’s time to fire up and learn something. Similarly, experts recommend doing little besides sleeping in bed because it could damage the association between the bed and the act of sleeping.

These are the things I had in mind when reading p. 92-93 about rehearsal. Half the struggle is storage, but the other half is triggering recall. Pity the student that takes an exam in a room other than where he learned about the concept. The familiar triggers of a full whiteboard, perhaps a live powerpoint screen, paint on the walls, shadows on the desks, and even the feeling of boredom are absent. The blank sheet of paper has no triggers, unless, thank God it’s a multiple choice exam! The student might have rehearsed or reviewed the semantic data the night before while sitting in bed wearing cozy pajamas and listening to music. Once he gets back there, he’ll probably remember what he studied in that context.

In contrast, it is quite likely that the student will remember clearly every detail of his dreadful experience trying to recall information during the exam. Instead of a random assortment of semantic data, his brain has a clear storyline to rewind, replay, and regret. All the details of location, emotion, time, etc. provide multiple connection points from which the student can recall the experience. This ongoing storyline is always available but we tend to ignore it because we are overwhelmed with so many things besides this storyline. This autobiographical (episodic) memory is tied to “time and place…and gives us a sense of self…” (p.87). Trying to learn semantic ideas by rehearsal is the same as trying to put the same sticker onto multiple points of the timeline. Greater chance of running into one of them if there’s several lying around. However, the sticker is more like velcro with only one thread of connection (very likely to fall off before you get back to it).

If there was a way to increase the number of connecting points between a semantic fact (piece of data) by personalizing it or experiencing it somehow, this would create a much deeper episodic memory that might include the semantic detail. As shown later in the chapter, information that has been stored is drawn back into working memory and then changed when we add new information to it. This perhaps is why Dewey argued for the power of learning through experience: because it relies on the episodic memory we’ve been using since childhood.

I would therefore like to propose that the power of rehearsal can be dramatically improved in both storage and recall if we practice three things.

  • First, increasing the depth and focus of our observations as happens automatically during adrenalin rushes like in a fight or flight scenario.
  • Second, we intentionally tie these observations to our ongoing episodic memory by remembering our location, feeling, context etc…
  • Third, in order to recall what has been rehearsed we intentionally select one of the preceding factors to trigger the entire episodic storyline where all the information has been stored.

Example: instead of learning  f b d c a e g (letters of the alphabet), we arrange them in a specific order, we make a song out of them, and to remember all of them, we just have to sing the song. If only it was that easy…

Sousa, D. (2011). “How the Brain Learns.” Unites States: Corwin.


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