Understanding Learning and Memory: The Neuroscience of Repetition

Lather, rinse, repeat...
— Instructions on every shampoo bottle

How do we learn things? How can we make change? If we have done it once, why do we find ourselves falling back on old habits? Maybe the first thing to understand is how our brain creates memory. It is important to understand the basics of memory in order to understand learning and change. It is also important to understand the basics of memory in order to better understand traumatic memory. And I want you to understand how the brain makes memories so you can understand why practice and repetition are so important.

In today’s blog I will simply start with the idea that information comes in through our senses—our ears, eyes, skin, nose, or tastebuds. And this information gets routed either through the low road —the amygdala (our emergency fight-flight/emotional memory storage center), or the high road—the hippocampus-cortex (our memory storage center.) And once information comes in, it needs to get encoded—and by that I mean, it needs to be ‘written’ in a language the brain understands so it can be stored and remembered.

Here we make a distinction between short term memory and long term memory. Short term or what is also called ‘working’ memory is the holding area where information stays when it first comes in: someone tells us their phone number and we repeat it back keeping it in working memory- it’s like a whiteboard you scribble on in your brain for your incoming information. Short term memory lasts minutes. When short-term memory makes the shift to long term memory-- long term memory can lasts day, weeks, years or forever. How does information move from short term memory to long term memory?

There are only three ways that information can move from short-term memory to long term memory: urgency, repetition, or association. Urgency, with the release of stress hormones, creates a powerful wash of chemicals that strengthens the connection between neurons or synapses. And, urgency also determines how and where the brain encodes the information into long term memory. Urgency can create a very long lasting memory—after a single exposure to a threat, the amygdala can retain that memory for an entire lifespan. However, the encoding or labeling of the event—the ability to recall or retrieve the memory can be more troublesome, and not under conscious control—so that the information gets stored with an emotional, rather than a narrative marker. I can pass by where I had my car accident and get anxious, even if I don’t have a conscious memory of the event.

Repetition is the most familiar learning tool --everyone has memorized facts or vocabulary words by repeating them, and some have improved basketball free-throw shooting or playing piano scales through practice. Repetition creates long term memory by eliciting or enacting strong chemical interactions at the synapse of your neuron (where neurons connect to other neurons). Repetition creates the strongest learning—and most learning—both implicit (like tying your shoes) and explicit (multiplication tables) relies on repetition. It is also why it is so hard to make behavior change, because the new behavior must be repeated for so long—and the old behavior must be held in check.

Association is the ability for a piece of information to tap into a neural connection that already exists. It’s the equivalent of already having a file folder for the new learning to go in to. For example, if I read a list of ten numbers out loud and asked you to remember them and say them back to me--- typically you would find this a difficult task. But if the ten numbers also happened to be your phone number then the task would be easy, and if I asked you a year later what the numbers were, you would still be able to give them to me because they were already part of a previous neural connection.

All three of these methods affect the neuron or synapse level in similar ways for long term memory. The stimulation from urgency, repetition or association will actually create new proteins inside your neuron-- at the level of the synapse a self-perpetuating protein is created which keeps the connection going between neurons. This is a long lasting self-perpetuating protein, and it gets strengthened with repetition. In addition to this self-perpetuating cycle, the neuron, through the protein process also creates a new synaptic terminal growth—to increase the connection—it adds another branch on its tree to strengthen and increase the network.  So repetition actually grows the brain’s neural network.

So with rare exception repetition is the only real option for learning, unlearning, and re-learning—and yet as adults we so often believe that we can and must learn everything fast. Everything is supposed to be 3 easy steps, or maybe 5, but not 100. We are designed to learn through practice. Can you imagine how hokey it would sound to say, “Play the cello just like Yo-Yo Ma in 3 easy steps!” It would be absurd. Elite musicians spend 15-15 years of practice to become the artists that they are. And depending upon what you are trying to learn, trying to heal, trying to unlearn or re-learn it can take a long time too. It’s okay. It’s the way we were designed to learn. And our own internal symphonies are worth the practice and time and care. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015