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Bonus Focus - Understand Encoding to Boost Memory


By Merrill Collier

Memory has the ability to store and recall information. But it's the process of "encoding" that allows an item to be stored in the brain, and later recalled from short- or long-term memory. Short-term memory one retains from seconds to an hour or more. Long-term memory can be retained for days, weeks, and, in principle, for one’s lifetime.

Information is encoded through visual encoding (processing of images), acoustic encoding (processing of sounds), and semantic encoding (processing of meaning). Each encoding process uses different brain systems to help us remember information.

Semantic processing (the information being processed has a particular meaning, or can be applied to a context) has been shown to yield the best recall (Craik & Tulving 1975). From a life sciences training standpoint, this could be key product messaging, or product and clinical benefits that could lead to patient benefits. Relational or elaborative rehearsal is a process in which you relate new material to information already stored in long-term memory, and involves considering the object's meaning, as well as making connections between the object, other objects or past experiences. For example, instead of memorizing a series of unrelated numbers, you might associate them with dates personally significant to you. Trainers typically use various types of ‘relational rehearsal’ to encode information in participants’ minds.

Strategies can be applied to enhance semantic processing and encoding to influence how well information is remembered and able to be recalled at a later day. For example, information chunking and mnemonics allows for easier and deeper processing, and optimizes retrieval. Chunking is reducing the amount to be remembered by organizing it into meaningful packets or wholes in which many related items can be stored. An ideal combination is chunking with reinforcement (small learning chapters with quizzes). The mnemonic "Roy G. Biv" can be used to remember the colors of the rainbow.

State-dependent encoding refers to the notion that putting yourself in the same mindset that you were in at the time of encoding enhances recall in the same way that being in the same situation helps recall. In one study (Godden and Baddeley 1975), deep sea divers were asked to learn various materials while either under water or on the side of the pool. The study found those who were tested in the same condition in which they had learned the information were better able to recall it (i.e. those who learned the material under water did better when tested on that material under water than when tested on land). In my recently published article, "Measuring Training Effectiveness with Clinical Trial Mentality” in the Winter 2013 issue of Focus, negotiating techniques were practiced in a classroom workshop in the context of actual business cases with actual customers to facilitate ‘state-dependent’ memory encoding to enhance recall when later out in the field with customers.

To summarize how encoding leads to long-term memory, neuropsychiatrist Dr. Kandel, Nobel Prize winner for research on memory storage in neurons, emphasized three key points:

· If it is very relevant to you, or emotionally charged, it will go into long-term memory. Daniel Kahneman, Princeton University psychologist and Nobel Prize winner found that what people remember most about an experience are two parts: the peak, when the feeling was most intense, and the end, especially if pleasant.

· If it’s trivial, unimportant, or if you only hear it only once, it’s not likely to go into long-term memory.

· If you repeat it, it’s likely to go into long-term memory. If you repeat it, it’s likely to go into long-term memory.

Repeat to Remember. Remember to Repeat.

Repeated exposure causes encoding as connections between neurons are established through repeated use (‘neurons that fire together wire together’). The strategy of repeated exposure should be implemented in the classroom, and for months afterwards - to reinforce encoding, recall, and increase probability of use in the field.

In the classroom, ‘recall and repeat’ exercises can be student-centered learning opportunities to ensure get participants to recall and repeat info learned in a pre-work assignment, or that learned during the classroom.

Afterward, learning reinforcement emails and 30/60/90 day coaching calls are very effective forms of ‘spaced learning’ to avoid Ebberhaus’ "forgetting curve.” We received the following quotes:

· "The learning emails are helpful because they refresh the knowledge and establish it well in your head.It is a practical technique that prepares you to answer questions asked by customers.”

· "The learning emails reinforced the gained knowledge more and in a better way! The scenarios refresh the knowledge in our memory.”

Summary – From Memory Neuroscience Principles to Training Techniques


Neuroscience Principles


Practical Training Techniques

 - Remembering most relevant and important information

- Encoding memory

- Semantic processing

- Relational or
elaborative rehearsal

- Chunking

- Nmeumonics

- State-dependent

- Move from short-term to
mid/long-term memory
for better recall


- Repeat to remember,
remember to repeat

- Make relevant and
meaningful to increase
chances of transfer to
mid/long-term memory

- Provide in ‘chunks’ to not
with reinforcement and
feedback, to not
overwhelm learners

- Recall and repeat
student-centered learning

exercises, to reinforce
pre-work or that learned
in class

- Post-classroom: Learning
Reinforcement emails,
and coaching calls

Adult learning can be enhanced by evidence-based principles, studied by neuroscientists and used by magicians, to leverage audience awareness and attention to yield better learning, and longer-term retention.

Many of you are familiar with the term gestalt. It can be traced to writings of the philosophers, such as Aristotle. The premise is the whole is more than the sum of its parts. If the facilitator is clear about the gestalt – that is, the underlying principles of neuroscience and related challenges – we will be better able to design, construct and deliver for memorable results. We are the architects.

Merrill Collier is a principle global training and education specialist at Medtronic’s CardioVascular division. This article expresses the personal views of the author and does not necessarily represent the opinions of Medtronic, Inc. Email Merrill at


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