Why does our mind go blank when looking at an exam paper?

Without a doubt, this has happened to you as a student. After weeks of preparing for an exam, you look at the exam paper and get a terrible feeling of panic: your mind is as blank as the answer sheet in front of you. Everything you have studied suddenly has disappeared and you can't remember anything.

However, it's all just down to the stress of trying to take control of the situation. If you have studied properly (rather than cramming and not sleeping the night before), all the information you need is right there stored in your brain. So, all you need to do is to calm down and locate the information file.

Dr. Sagrario Manzano, Coordinator of the Behavior and Dementia Study Group of the Spanish Neurological Society offers the following simple explanation: "At times like these, you are under so much stress and there is so much information to recall that it seems that you can't remember anything. That's the biggest mistake in most cases".

However, sometimes these mental blocks are more than an appearance and actually prevent the remembering process from working normally. "Another aspect is that the stress can become so intense that our frontal lobe (the conductor of our brain) blocks access to our memory bank, and we are unable to call upon all the perfectly stored information, simply because this inhibitory network has been activated. Therefore, anyone who finds it difficult to overcome this type of mental block should practice relaxation techniques".

The problem is that memory is pure chaos and rummaging through it is not as easy as searching for a folder on your computer. Mnemonics can be used to facilitate this task. You just need to understand how memory works to harness its full potential and achieve a degree of order within the chaos.

Let's start with some simple questions: What is memory? "Our mental capacity is what enables us to record, store, and recall facts, ideas, images, and other experiences", explains Dr. Manzano.

What parts of the brain are involved in the mental process? To synthesize something so complex (i.e., storing a new piece of information in the brain), different neurons connect together to create routes or pathways. When it comes to recalling a memory, the neurons travel back along the same route.

Sometimes a certain smell, image, or word is enough to recall a memory with incredible clarity, even if you have not thought about it for several years. The fact that a sensation can help you remember something demonstrates the astonishing capacity of the brain. It is such an effective system that it only requires a little context or a single stimulus to deliver results. Memory likes to see and have a context.

Memorization tricks (that you won't forget)

Mnemonic rules, based on how the brain retains data, can help you to study. Mnemonics are based on the idea that it is much easier to visualize than to remember something, for example, a series of numbers. Similarly, it is easier to memorize the alphabet using a song due to the "ability of music to stick in your head". (This article gives you 7 tricks that can help you)

There is no reason to think that you can't overcome a mental block before an exam. Memory can be trained through practice, like any other skill. The problem is that we don't tend to make our memory work. Instead, we increasingly rely on technology to do this for us: if it weren't for Facebook, would we remember anyone's birthday?

And, despite this, it is even possible to memorize the individual order of all the playing cards in 59 decks. Okay, that's an extreme case. In fact, it is a Guinness World Record for memory. However, it goes to show that the human brain can achieve incredible feats.