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Neuroscience

How to be ‘brainy’ at the exams

With examinations round the corner, memory is again at the centre of public discourse. Find out how your memory works from the mind of leading neurosurgeon, Dr N K Venkataramanaa.

Memory involves neural, electrical and chemical processes among others and several steps like registration, consolidation, storage (retention) and recollection. Registration depends upon the attention span, concentration and interest. During consolidation memory becomes organized and is stored for years. Repetition, rehearsal and sleep help the consolidation process. Recollection is most important for utilizing memory effectively. A calm mind exhibits better attention and focus thereby facilitating superior registration.


Your interest level for a subject can enhance attention and focus. In other words, the registration process is much more reliant on attention and concentration than recollection. However, if attention or concentration is poor then recollection can suffer. In this respect the brain is like a computer, which requires proper registration, data entry and encoding for better storage and recollection.

Our ability to remember a number of things depends on how well your brain is trained in all the above processes. Rehearsal is an important exercise for consolidating memory and turning short-term into long-term memory. It is well known that reading loudly enhances memory and retention. At least the important points should be read loudly so that those points are amplified in storage. Similarly, writing along with reading enhances comprehension. Concepts which are understood clearly have better chances for long term storage. Sometimes, cramming through repetition and hearing can also help you retain information, called “rote memory.” This fades away once the need is over. It is, therefore, also called need-based or task-oriented memory. The process of recollection enhances memory and what is not recollected is often deleted periodically by the brain in order to create room for new ones.

It is important for students to understand all these processes and follow systematic methods to enhance their learning ability and memory.

In the brain memory is distributed across different areas, with each of them sub-serving a particular type of memory. All information is collated effectively at the fastest speed for addressing everyday tasks. For example, when a question is asked several areas of the brain get activated, through hearing (temporal lobe), reading (occipital lobe). The query then circulates around many other associated areas for collecting all the necessary information available in various memory circuits. Then the information is processed and this processed information is then supplied to the motor and speech areas of the brain to enable you to write or express the answer. Likewise, several actions are triggered by the brain’s command.

Several conditions can disturb memory, like inappropriate registration, lack of concentration and interest. This can be overcome with sustained effort. Pathological conditions like disease or head injury, brain hemorrhage, stroke, epilepsy and, in the elderly, degenerative diseases, too can impair memory.

Tips for enhancing the memory

  1. Good nutrition: Brian needs adequate amount of calories for sustained attention and for creating necessary neuro transmitters
  2. Physical exercise: This improves blood circulation and oxygenation, which boost your physical stamina and helps you sustain your reading efforts over long periods.
  3. Proper sleep: This enhances the consolidation process of the memory and aids better storage, recollection and concentration
  4. Regularity of reading: Regular, daily reading is Important to promote concentration
  5. Music: Especially the practice of instrumental music can enhance concentration and tolerance, thereby, helping the overall memory function.
  6. Repetition and rehearsal: More number of times you repeat, the stronger your memory becomes. It also assists faster recollection.
  7. Linking the subjects with several known links can help in recollection
  8. Recollecting subjects learnt periodically helps the process of remembering and recollection
  9. Reading familiar books with important points highlighted aids better visual (photographic) memory

Things to avoid

Don’t stay awake at odd hours and long hours just before or during exams. Reading anything for the first time before the exam can be counterproductive.

Using stimulants like coffee, tea or drugs to induce artificial alertness damages the memory process. It may garble the information inside your head and leave you in a state of confusion just when you want your memory to be razor sharp. You may commit unnecessary mistakes, write wrong answers, forget things you knew well and at times misunderstand the process of the exam itself, or even forget the question numbers or your examination number. In short, it can lead to an easily avoidable disaster.

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