Tips & Stories

How Evernote Works Like Your Memory: An Interview with Maureen Ritchey, Cognitive Neuroscientist

Posted by Kasey Fleisher Hickey on 06 Aug 2012

Posted by Kasey Fleisher Hickey on 06 Aug 2012

  • Name: Maureen Ritchey
  • Profession: Cognitive Neuroscientist (post doc)
  • Institution:University of California, Davis
  • Location: Davis, CA
  • Website:

Evernote is designed to work the way your brain does and a few months ago, a neuroscientist named Maureen Ritchey came by our offices to explain exactly why that’s the case. We didn’t want to keep the fascinating information to ourselves, so we asked Maureen to stop by our blog and share some of her knowledge with our users. Thanks, Maureen!

What is your background and area of research?
I’m a cognitive neuroscientist, which means that I study how the brain supports mental function. I completed my PhD at Duke University, where my graduate work focused on the influence of emotion on the neural bases of memory. Now as a postdoc at the University of California, Davis, I use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the systems that support memories for different kinds of information — e.g., the appearance of an item versus its location or context.

How do our brains retrieve memories?
There’s a brain structure called the hippocampus that, along with the surrounding cortex of the medial temporal lobes, is essential to making new memories and retrieving most old memories. Much evidence has suggested that during the initial learning experience, the hippocampus links together information from other parts of the brain — areas involved in sensory perception, semantic knowledge, etc. — into a bound memory trace. Then, during retrieval, the hippocampus triggers the reactivation of these distributed representations. In this way, we can start with part of a memory (e.g., a face) and reactivate the rest of the information that goes with it (a name).

Why are some memories easier to recall than others?
For a variety of reasons, our brains might strengthen some memories over others. Maybe they triggered an emotional response, maybe they were the precursor to something important, maybe they caught your attention. These memories appear to be consolidated over time, in that their neural trace becomes strengthened and less susceptible to interference from new experiences. Then, when it comes time to remember, these traces can become reactivated more easily than the memories that didn’t get this kind of special treatment.

How do our brains make connections between memories and help us associate them with specific people, places, and periods of time?
As described above, memories are built from a distributed network of representations in cortex and the hippocampus binds them all together. Many memory researchers think that the cortical memory traces overlap with each other, such that memories from my last visit to a science museum overlap with memories from previous trips to science museums or to museums in general. This overlap allows for knowledge and associations to bridge across multiple memories.

How can you proactively strengthen your memory?
Get plenty of sleep. A little bit of stress is good, but not too much. Relate new information to what you already know. Practice remembering – it’s been shown that testing yourself on new information helps memory more than studying alone.

How important is context to memory?
Context is a huge factor in determining whether we remember something. A classic example that psychologists use to talk about this is the “butcher on the bus” or the (updated) “barista on the bus.” If you’re in your favorite coffee shop, you’d easily recognize the barista behind the bar. But if you were to run into him on a bus, you might sense that he’s familiar but not be able to place where you know him from. This is because, in the coffee shop, you’re in the right context to be able to retrieve the memory. But when you’re on the bus, you don’t have the context as a cue and thus memory becomes more difficult.

What factors influence the ease with which we remember something?
A few things that seem important are the relevance of the information to ourselves (e.g., is Henry the name of my nephew or your nephew?), its distinctiveness relative to everything else we encounter, and its relationship to prior knowledge, that is, whether we can fold in this new piece of information with stuff we already know.

Also, sometimes we just have to be in the right state to learn. If we’re well-rested, that helps. If we’re having an adrenaline rush, that will also help. (That’s part of why we remember emotionally significant experiences better than others.) We can be in the right state to remember, too, by being in the same context or paying attention to the same details as during learning.

What is the correlation between the way Evernote helps you remember and the way the brain works?
Some of the broader concepts are the same – in both Evernote and human memory, you have an initial encoding phase (adding a note to Evernote versus studying or paying attention to what’s happening) and a retrieval phase (searching for notes versus trying to remember something). But the phases differ a lot too. In human memory, encoding doesn’t have to be an active process- we don’t have to walk around trying to remember everything we see in order to store a memory for it. Another difference is that the search process in human memory is usually less efficient and more fallible than the search process in Evernote. We forget things and often when we do remember, our memories are incomplete or accessible only through the exact right retrieval cue.

If you were to recommend some ‘best practices’ for using Evernote, what would they be?

  1. Be pro-active about creating notes. Evernote doesn’t automatically make memories like your brain does, but if you store the information in there, it will do a better job at finding the memory later.
  2. Since remembering to remember is tough, try to automate note-taking as much as possible. For example, I use ifttt to send starred articles in Google Reader to Evernote.
  3. Include as many potential retrieval cues as possible. Use the location metadata, develop a set of standard keywords that you use to label different types of information (either as tags or embedded words), include a photo when relevant.
  4. Rely on it. Memories are useful only to the extent that they can guide future behavior. Take advantage of the memories you have stored in Evernote by turning to them before blindly searching the web. I like being able to search Evernote and the web at the same time through my web clipper.

Do you use tags, how and why?
I do use tags because I find them to be an easy way to classify notes on the go without having to type much in. I like that they can span multiple notebooks and can be applied in a conceptual way to notes that wouldn’t necessarily have that word built in (e.g., “ideas” or “data figures”). But I also embed more specific keywords in my notes themselves so that I don’t wind up with a huge set of tags.


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11 Comments RSS

  • Matt

    She says she uses “ifttt” to send starred Google Reader items to Evernote…what is itfff?

    Also curious to know what kind of feeds a neuroscientist follows in her Google Reader?!

  • Diane

    Matt ifttt is if this then that, really neat way to automate things on the web. Lots of channels to push things to where you need them. I use it to save photos from Facebook to Evernote. I need to revisit it to see what else I can push into my online brain!

    • Matt

      thanks Diane, thanks Jude

  • Jude

    ifttt is “if this than that”; great site for automating processes thru “recipes”…check it out

  • Michael

    Hi Matt,

    IFTTT (If This Then That) is a service which allows to automate things on the web. An example: IFTTT can automatically save articles you starred in Google Reader to Evernote, send Tweets etc. See also:

  • @dr3do

    How is it possible to send (with formatted (HMTL style) e-mails to evernote? I only get plain text to work. But I get often HTML mails. Any idea?

  • Robert Oschler

    Great article and nice to see the neuroscience angle brought into focus in conjucntion with our favorite information management tool (Evernote of course).

    What must happen next though for a tool to be created that truly extends our brains, short of a wetware implant, are tools to handle the 2 issues not addressed yet by Evernote or any other information management tool yet. Specifically, items #2 and #3 on the list below that form the 3 pillars of total recall (homage to the movie there):

    1) Store everything you need to remember (Evernote)
    2) Know the correct and properly phrased question to ask to retrieve previously stored information
    3) And the hardest of all, especially when the information store grows past our brain’s fast-recall index window, remembering to even ask the right question at the exact moment a particular problem to be solved occurs that will help with the solution of that problem. That is, when the information is critically needed. Forgetting what you already know becomes the exponentially increasing #1 problem when the information store grows larger over time.

    The solution will lie in creating an artificially intelligent query transaction layer, one that handles question-to-context reminders in conjunction with automated prompting mechanisms. This layer will connect Evernote users together to form dynamic and spontaneous ad hoc co-researcher teams, one part active and user directed, another part completely handled by the AI layer to form anonymous co-researcher groups. This layer will create and break connections dynamically between Evernote users with the user and the user’s usage patterns creating the basis for real-time dissemination of questions and resulting answers. The user at times will act as the librarian and curator assisting queries while at other times, receiving helpful publicly available documents and information links that address their current problem solving efforts, and at other times, previously abandoned ones deemed important by the AI layer based on their usage patterns. Note, the user will frequently succeed as librarian and curator solely by their usage patterns instead of handling explicit queries from the system.

    The crux of the matter is that questions are far more than questions. They are not static queries, disembodied entities that are merely tools to request an information item. They are the very links our brains use to move from one thought to the next when solving a problem. For a powerful information storage tool like Evernonte to reach its full potential, the management and dissemination of properly structured and timely questions must become an integral and automatic part of the overall architecture.

    — roschler

  • Robert Oschler

    Testing comment system. Got a bunch of PHP warnings when I submitted the last comment and I did not capture them. Please delete this comment if it goes through.

    — roschler

  • michelle


  • Warranty Log

    Thank you for the How Evernote Works Like Your Memory: An Interview with Maureen Ritchey, Cognitive Neuroscientist information. Kasey, What motivated you to call this blog “How Evernote Works Like Your Memory: An Interview with Maureen Ritchey, Cognitive Neuroscientist”, not that the title does not go with the content, I am just wondering. Nice work Kasey.

  • Justin

    As much as I LOVE Evernote, I’m not sure how much of this really relates to each other. And the last thing they say is “Rely on it”…sounds like blatant marketing telling you you need their product.
    I still love Evernote and will continue to use it as my main note taker 😀