Memorizing and Understanding Are Crucially Different—Here Are 4 Tips To Make Sure You’re Really Learning

Following George Floyd’s murder and the resulting societal reckoning with the systemic racism that has been present in our country for centuries, many white people now find themselves vigorously working toward allyship to the Black community as if cramming to ace a test on anti-racism. But there is no deadline for the ongoing importance of anti-racism work. Furthermore, cramming won't give way to the long-term learning that's necessary for creating the true change that’s needed in the world.

That's because truly learning, rather than cramming, requires a deep, continuous commitment to studying every day (without a test to mark an endpoint) to be able to translate those lessons to long-term memory.

Experts In This Article
  • Nan Wise, PhD, licensed psychotherapist, cognitive neuroscientist, and certified sex therapist

And, to be sure, there are non-cramming strategies for committing lessons to memory in an impactful, meaningful way. And to stick, they require us to engage our emotional energy.

How to commit something to long-term memory and actually learn

To understand how to actually learn and commit something to long-term memory, we first must understand key differences between long-term and short-term memory—or "working memory." Put simply, working memory is the window in which we remember things for the day-to-day. "It's a constantly rebooting 15 to 20 second platform through which we observe what is happening around us," says Nan Wise, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist. The working memory, at the top of the brain, pulls out long-term factoids, like addresses, as needed, but long-term memory is enforced when we work with the basement of the brain, where our evolutionary older equipment lives.

It's here in the "basement" that different neurological systems come into play for committing information to long-term memory via learn. Certain negative systems discourage long-term memory: the FEAR system, which helps us avoid danger; the RAGE system, which helps us defend ourselves; and the PANIC system, which gets triggered when we get disconnected from our sources of support.

It's also important to keep in mind that in the midlevel of the brain is where we learn implicit, "unconscious" biases, like racism. If you're white, for example, and have been socialized in a society that prioritizes whiteness, you hold these implicit biases. Even if your top mind decides, "I'm a good person, I'm not racist," the mid-level mind can hold problematic thought patterns that have been long conditioned by society.

"We can learn, for example, to associate ingroup people — 'people who look like us'— with more comfort and ease and to make associations with outgroup folks "people who look different" with more discomfort or fear," says Dr. Wise. "And think back to what we discussed regarding people having different temperaments at the bottom of the brain. People who are more FEARful or RAGEful might make these biased connections a bit more strongly or easily than those with less defensively wired emotional brain."

On the flip side, there are positive systems that tend to promote learning and embed lessons in our mind: The CARE system is where we develop the warm and fuzzy life-sustaining feelings that we experience through our relationships. The PLAY system helps people learn through exploration, and can create resilience and social joy. Then there's the SEEKING system, which is powered by dopamine and works with all the systems to facilitate learning. It's "the source of our enthusiasm and motivation to go out into the world and get our needs met," Dr. Wise says.

Our positive emotions make our reactions more sticky to our memory.


So while some of these systems lead us to protect ourselves against perceived threats and others promote curious exploration, all call upon the emotions—positive, negative, or otherwise—to make our reactions more sticky to our memory. "When these circuits get experimentally stimulated, they create the emotional reactions that nature equipped us with to defend and protect ourselves, as well as to seek connections with others so we can survive and thrive. The emotional instincts show up in our body sensations and visceral experiences.”

That means in order to truly learn, our emotions must be engaged, with the systems of the bottom mind re-teaching the mid-level mind. We must care, whether negatively or positively reinforced, in order to commit learnings to our long-term memory.

Long-term learning requires you to engage feelings—here are 4 ways to do that:

This isn't a matter of simply learning and unlearning, it's also about relearning how we learn so we can do it in a way that sticks. Here are a few ways you can do that:

1. Seek out solutions

Being curious and engaging can allow for long-term learning by way of engaging the SEEKING system. Think about how powerful emotions inflame long-term memory, like how an impactful video might move you, outrage you, or sadden you. Use those feelings as fuel for researching tools for self-education.

2. Eliminate negative feelings around self-blame and judgment

Dr. Wise recommends this because negative emotions can become road blocks to learning. Consider the concept of math trauma, wherein those who deem themselves "bad at math" become terrified to stray from their iPhone calculator. When you think you're "bad at math," you tend not to try your hand at long division out of fear that you'll get the equation wrong.

Anti-racism is not the same as long division, of course. But applying the negative association of "oh, I'm so bad at understanding race, what if I say the wrong thing?" to the act of self-education can similarly provide a support paralysis. This is a cognitive block that stops the processes of learning and understanding.

3. Find passion points

To engage your PLAY system, flame your sacred rage and make those focuses a priority in your quest for knowledge.

4. Whenever you learn something, follow it up with an after-action

This suggestion is admittedly not focused solely on emotion, but it's important nonetheless. Taking after-action can help embed genuine understanding of the material in your mind. Often, this is done in the form of a review, but it can take other forms. Below are a few ideas for after-actions that allies to the Black community can take.

  1. Commit to a daily habit. Some ideas including signing up for Nicole Cardoza's newsletter, Anti-Racism Daily, which provides learnings and actions to take for combatting anti-racism. By committing to a daily practice for your learning and following up after-action, the work is ongoing.
  2. Take a course or workshop: Maybe you opt for a workbook from Dive In Well that educates about decolonizing the wellness industry (as well as your own personal mind-set). Or you take Rachel Ricketts' Spiritual Activism 101 and 102 courses to specifically examine unpacking privilege and allyship as a journey. Maybe you do both and more, because, remember, learning is ongoing and without a deadline.
  3. Follow up a practice donating to a related cause: Because knowledge is power, but so is proactively using your money to invoke social change.

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