Memory and confidence - a fascinating link

 

In this article, I share some of the insights I've gained through my work with children who struggle to learn and caring for a friend with dementia.

 

Working with children who learn differently and having an elderly friend with dementia, has given me some insights that I find rather curious.  One of them is the relationship between memory and confidence.   

Watching someone develop dementia is heartbreaking.  They aren’t aware of when their memory lapses.  My friend Liz for example, might go and make a cup of tea when I visit, then return from her kitchen, asking why I changed my clothes.  Or ask when I arrived.  

Often, she tells me a story from her childhood - again.  She is unaware that she has delighted me with the same story more than a hundred times before.  Eachtime, she is able to recall every single detail from that event. I can’t help but notice the confident twinkle in her eye, as she recalls the details. Including how special it made her feel.   

It also shows, clearly, how her long-term memory is safe for now from the ravages of the disease.      

Between the moments when she is at her best and when she is not, she is aware that her memory is fading. It causes her to ask me if she’s going crazy, or she may brush it off with an angry dismissal. She may even tell me to leave, confusing my concern with being rude or attacking her independence.  Her confidence is rocked to the core, and it’s understandable how she becomes confused, angry and defensive.    

It is cruel how dementia can torment the sufferer, their friends and family like this.    

Understanding the brain as I do, I’m aware that it’s her pain that causes her to defend and protect herself instinctively.  I know that she isn’t trying to be difficult.  She's instinctively trying to protect herself. 

The students I coach protect  

themselves in a similar way.   

They avoid learning because it is painful - a natural defense, similar to my friend’s.  They will question their ability, ignore, hide or mask their learning challenges to avoid judgment.  They are instinctively trying to survive.  Left long enough, they may begin to strike out in ways that can be quite destructive. Or at best, fall through the cracks of education and into a life of dissatisfaction.   

The brain needs repetition to build strong neural pathways. If a cycle develops where the child avoids reading and learning, the brain does not get the practice it needs to build the networks to process, retain and recall information.    

Or find the joy in learning for that matter.  They don’t get the practice of paying attention, or of recalling. Their habit of avoiding prevents them from optimising their brain to learn.  And they don't receive as many brain chemical rewards like dopamine that their more engaged peers might.    

In my observation, there is usually a strong correlation between low confidence and their refusal to learn.   

Having said that, it has been a privilege over the years to see the changes in my students’ confidence when their ability to learn has improved.    

Fast ForWord, the evidence based, online program I use, provides the repetition to build the learning pathways for memory, attention and thinking speed.    

Their ability to learn, communicate and socialise becomes more natural and easy.   

They remember instructions better and their reading and comprehension improves. Their ability to organise and self regulate increases.  Dopamine fires more frequently, creating more “aha!” moments and the great feeling that comes with it.   

 

They start wanting to learn!   

As Fast ForWord uses artificial intelligence to adapt to each student after every key stroke, it gives them the incremental success they need to build that confidence back up again. As they become more competent, their confidence increases.  I see it, and so do their parents and teachers.   

Students need that success to want to learn, they need it to overcome the hurdles that learning already provides. They need the feeling of confidence that comes with their success.   

To give my friend Liz the same feeling, I like to shift her from the painful present where her memory is failing and her confidence is low. I gently ask her to tell me about the beautiful, soft, blue cardigan she received for Christmas when she was a girl. Her face lights up with joy as she begins the story again.   

With confidence she recalls all the details that made her feel so good back then.   

Her smile and the twinkle in her eye make me smile too.     

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