Learning 101: How We Take In and Retain Information

By: Other | April 14, 2017

Written by Mike Campbell, Ed.D.

People have been trying to understand how individuals process and take in information for the past 2000 years. As far back as the Greek philosophers, Socrates (469 –399 B.C.), Plato (427 – 347 B.C.), and Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C), learning theorists debated about how people learn. Needless to say, this has been an area of interest for a very long time!

Effective strategies for learning depend on the kind of learning that is desired and toward what ends they are aimed. In my practice, I see people desiring increased retention and increased ability to learn. Such clients struggle with attention and age related memory challenges. To a large part in fact, the field of neuropsychology aims at assessing how individuals learn and retain information the best.

Findings from cognitive sciences suggest that people construct new knowledge based on what they already know and believe. Men and women bring to their lives a range of prior knowledge, experiences, and beliefs (some of them are false) that have a significant impact how they perceive, organize, and interpret their environments. A theory that captured the interests of the psychology community is the Information Processing System (IPS). This theory proposes that the best way to retain information is to link new information (what you want to learn) to something that has a personal or emotional appeal (things that matter to you). So, before reading any further consider the following:

Quickly answer yes or no to the following questions:

  1. If you drove today, do you remember the color of the car parked next to you?
  2. Without looking around, do you know the color of the carpet in your office space?
  3. What about the color of the pants or shirt of a colleague or friend whom you saw this morning?
  4. How many people were in front of you in line at the coffee shop this morning? Can you remember what each of them was wearing?

Most people get one or two of these questions right, but very few of us remember all this information. The reason is simple: We do not deem this information useful as we go about our day-to-day lives. Our eyes see the information, it passes on to our brain, which then briefly processes information in terms of its usefulness for the goal at hand. Information deemed unnecessary gets dumped in a term psychologists call memory loss. As we age, information that we want to keep in our brains gets lost over time or doesn’t get stored at all. Also, we retain less information as we go about our daily lives.

So, the question arises: How can we retain information that is important to us in the most efficient way? The answer is simple: Link to something emotional (pleasant or painful), experiential, or musical. Here are a few examples:


Think back to primary school when you might have learned the 50 United States of America or how to spell a certain state by linking it to a song. For example, many of us will never forget how to spell Mississippi as we put it to a jingle.


When I was a child in the 1970s, we had scratch-and-sniff children’s books. Scratching a part of the book — usually a fruit or flower — would expel a fruity or floral scent. To this day, if I smell a similar scent, it takes me back some 40 years in a blink of an eye.


Think back to a time when you were in love or enchanted with someone. Listening to songs on the radio took on a whole new meaning during this time. Listening to the same songs now can transport us back to those emotional moments of our lives. The same is true for negative or painful events.

What these things have in common is that we are able to retain pleasant or painful information by linking to something with an emotional, experiential, or musical impact. Forty years can go by and the memory is almost as strong as it was the day you made it! By linking new information to meaningful old information, our brains are more able to store information in our long-term memories.

This process isn’t easy. It requires us to take an active approach wherein we make meaning of what is being said and relating it to our current or past lives. This serves learning retention better than not linking new information to anything in our past or present lives at all.

Take a moment today and see if this approach to learning holds true for you.


Atkinson, R. C. and R. M. Shiffrin (1968), ‘Human Memory: A Proposed System and Its Control Processes’, in K. W. Spence and J. T. Spence eds., The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research and Theory, Volume 2. New York: Academic Press.

Baddeley, A. D. and Logie, R. H. (forthcoming). ‘Auditory Imagery and Working Memory’, in D. Reisberg (ed.), Auditory Imagery. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hatfield, G. (1988), ‘Neuro-Philosophy Meets Psychology: Reduction, Autonomy, and Physiological Constraints’, Cognitive Neuropsychology 5, pp. 723–746.


Image: CollegeDegrees360 on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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