When you need something right now, it’s great to have a backup kept in a second location. If you keep duplicate car keys or spare sunglasses in a drawer by the front door, and not just in your purse or jacket pocket, you are much more likely to have them quickly when you need them.
The same is true for memorizing things you need to remember. If you want to remember something more easily, you can construct that memory and store duplicates of the information in multiple locations of your brain’s storage system. Learning, reviewing, and practicing new information through multiple senses does just that. You achieve information storage in multiple brain areas and benefit from faster memory construction and access to the information when you want it.
Using multiple senses is a powerful and enjoyable way to build strong memory circuits in less time and keep the information secure in long-term memory.
Here’s how it works. Memory networks are constructed by brain activation. To turn information into memory, it must be assimilated into neural networks. This occurs by active processing (repeated activations) at the synapses. Each time the information or experience is encountered, the repeated activations signal the construction of increased, stronger connections among the neurons holding the memory.
When new information first enters (e.g. through things you hear, see, touch, visualize, smell, taste, imagine, movements, etc.), it is held in short-term memory for less than one minute. To convert into long-term memory there must be the repeated activations of the temporary memory circuit that, at first, has only weakly connected neurons.
The repeated activation (use) of that circuit promotes what is called the neuroplastic response. This stimulation-activated neuroplasticity transforms the weakly linked short-term templates into strongly connected, efficient, durable, and easily retrievable long-term memory circuits.
Each type of sensory memory is stored in the lobe that receives the input from that specialized sensory system. Learning that is multisensory stimulates two or more memory systems in separate sensory brain storage regions. Visual memory is stored in the back of the brain (occipital lobes), auditory memory of what is heard is stored in the side regions (temporal lobes), memories of touching experiences are stored to the left and right of center (parietal lobes), and movement memory in the lower posterior regions, such as the cerebellum.
With multiple sensory inputs of the information e.g. touching, seeing, moving, hearing, or visualizing, etc., multiple brain regions store information about the information being learned or skill being practiced. We see on neuroimaging how the multiple regions storing different sensory experiences of the same information connect to each other by communicating networks.
Because each sense has a separate storage area in the brain, multisensory memory is easier to hook in, store, and remember. When one is activated (e.g. recall of what was seen) the others (what was heard, felt, visualized) are almost immediately coactivated. By remembering one of the ways the information was experienced, the other parts of the memory will come on line and be available for recall.
Multisensory memory power can be examined through the lens of neuroscience research. You may have heard people say that if one sense is lost the others get stronger. That may or may not be true for all senses, but here is an experiment in which a part of the brain did get stronger when a sense was lost.
The visual response center in the brain, the occipital cortex, is usually only activated by visual sensory information. Subjects were blindfolded for five-days and did not get any visual or light input to their brains. Initially there was a big drop in activity in their visual response occipital cortexes. They did receive intense study and practice in reading by touch, using braille.
After the five days of braille practice, their visual occipital cortexes showed neural activity in new circuits that had been constructed and were quite similar to those found in people blind from birth. Using their touch increased their memory storage in both their sensory (touch) and visual response part of their brains1.
You cement new memories more efficiently and power up their access to remembering (retrieving) the information when you experience, practice or review through multiple senses. By the act of touching, seeing, moving, hearing, and/or visualizing not only do multiple brain regions hold the information for faster memorization, but they also permit increased efficiency for memory retrieval.
Each new sensory approach to the information builds more interconnecting brain circuits. These brain cell networks are the roadways that link various parts of the brain. Just like traffic flow in a busy city, the more alternate pathways there are to connect with a memory, the more efficiently the traffic will flow, and the more rapidly and easily that memory will be retrieved when needed.
When a sensory cue comes in to retrieve a memory, the increased number of synaptic connections gives rise to more powerful recall. Remembering one sensory cue will activate the others. For example, if you process information about how sound waves work through reading, visualizing, and touching a vibrating object, you’ll have at least three brain storage boxes holding that knowledge. It doesn’t matter which one comes to mind when you are trying to remember facts about sound waves. When you recall any one, such as the feel of the vibrations, the related information about what your heard, read, or visualized will pop into your recall.
Use hearing, vision, and movement or touch to boost your memory of things you need to recall for tests, say in a presentation, or perform steps in a procedure. Here are some examples you can adapt for what you need to remember:
Visualize: If you exaggerate the information in an over-the-top visualization, the extra emotional punch or humor will intensify the memory. Example?? When subjects were shown video clips of hands touching varied objects, brain scans revealed activation not only of the visual cortex, but also of the neural regions in a distant region of the brain normally activated when the brain directs the actual touching2.
Tunes and rhymes boost memory: Just the way you’ve found it easier to recall lyrics to a song than to memorize a poem, you’ll increase memory storage when you put the information into a familiar tune or turn it into a rhyme. When gestures are part of that sound memory, the movements add a third storage locker for the information to further increase memory access.
Hearing what you read: Next time there is something you need to read and remember, add the auditory sensory information by reading it quietly aloud. Your brain will now receive the information through the two sensory systems, vision and hearing. You’ll be more likely to recall what you read because of its duplicate areas of storage.
Touch and Movement: Movements add a multidimensional component to memory and are especially useful to remember ideas or concepts. An example is for students learning about planetary movement to physically revolve around a ball on the floor mimicking a planet revolving around the sun. Then they would add turning in circles as they walk in their orbits, representing the rotation of the planet on its axis.
Another example of a multisensory learning is about the topic of electricity. It helps students understand the concept of electrons in electricity when they do more than read about it. After reading about the relationship of electrons to the nucleus of an atom, they can visualize an electron orbiting the nucleus of an atom, mimic the buzz of electricity as it whizzes by, and feel the tingling associated with the electron’s negative charge by rubbing a balloon against their arms and feeling their arm hairs move. The multiple brain pathways stimulated will carry the new information into multiple long-term memory banks for easy future withdrawal.
So, make memorizing (and understanding) faster, more efficient, and more enjoyable with multisensory processing. Memory construction will accelerate and you’ll have better access to retrieve the information for the test or task for which it was learned. An even greater reward is the enhanced access to the information beyond the test or task to use for new applications, new problems, or creative innovations. Pretty good bonuses from making more powerful memories the multisensory way!
K. Meyer, J. T. Kaplan, R. Essex, H. Damasio, A. Damasio. (2011). Seeing Touch Is Correlated with Content-Specific Activity in Primary Somatosensory Cortex. Cerebral Cortex, 2011; 21(9).
Merabet, L., Hamilton,R., Schlaug,G., Swisher,J., Kiriakopoulos, E., Pitskel,B., Kauffman, T., and Pascual-Leone, A. (2008). Rapid and Reversible Recruitment of Early Visual Cortex for Touch. PLoS ONE. 2008; 3(8): e3046.