How did you know that? When and where we learn things matters.

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Photo courtesy of

You know you know something but can’t remember why.

Lately, I am having this problem more and more. How about you? And no it is not just about age. Seems that preschoolers have this same problem. It has to do with differing types of memories that were stored in different ways.

I go to write about something, maybe I remember a fact or a quote but I can’t for the life of me remember which book or article, out of the hundreds I have read, I got that from. I don’t want to just plagiarize someone else’s idea but at what point does it move from being something someone else told me and become something I just know because I know it?

Some things we know because of verbal memory. I know that George Washington was the first president of the United States; I also know that there was a thing called the Hundred Years War. I do not for the life of me remember when and where I first learned about either of those things.

This type of memory is semantic as in words or stories type memories. We know about Washington and the hundred acres woods or was that the hundred years war? But who told us.

There are other things that I remember clearly when and where I was the first time I heard about something. In that case, I can clearly tell you who it was that told me all about that “fact.” These specific learning experiences are called “episodic memories.”

The distinction between these two kinds of knowledge gets glossed over a lot. The result can be that we believe “facts” because someone told us and now, not remembering who it was that said that first; we just accept this as true. What if the person who told us that was wrong?

The source of our “facts” is important also.

This idea of separating out the things we just know from general knowledge and those things we can tell the exact time and place where we learned it has been studied in children. (See Bemis, et al., 2011, note that for once I found one of the studies that I was thinking of.)

Their study on very young children, looked at the times the kids could tell you specifically when and where they were when they first learned something and the times they felt they “just knew” something. They came up with some interesting ideas, albeit the conclusions are a bit tentative. But research types never seem to know anything for sure they just know they need to study this more.

Even in preschool kids, females seem more likely to remember the story of when they learned something rather than to just know that fact. Boys at that age just take it for granted they know what they know, more often than girls. Don’t lay this on genetics though. Researchers have concluded that this comes from the way the parents were spending more time telling their daughters stories about why things were the way they were as opposed to just saying to boys things were that way because they were.

When a little boy tells you he is smart or handsome he believes this is just because it is so. A little girl will be able to provide evidence. She is smart because her grandma said so. She is also cute because dad says so and very cantankerous, whatever that is because mom said so. See the difference between these two approaches?

Kids of both genders reported a variety of times and places they had learned things. They could also at a very early age report whether they saw something, heard it, read it in a book or learned it during an activity like a game.

This variation in how they knew when and where they learned things goes to the basic learning styles. Some people just learn things better when they see them and others when they read or hear and so on. Unfortunately, despite which way you may be best at learning we try to cram all kids into the same learning style. As they move along in school fewer, not more, ways of learning are likely to be emphasized.

Older kids are more likely than younger ones to remember when and where they learned something but the little ones could still describe the time and place that they first learned a particular fact.

This is back to the impact of that first impression. If the first time you learned about pigs you saw grandma feeding one, this is a whole lot different than if you saw “P is for Pig” in a storybook.

Boys do appear to be better able to learn from seeing things even from a very young age. Girls pick things up better from actually doing things. How much of those differences are the boys and girls and how much comes from the way mommies and daddies treat kids is open to debate?

The takeaway here is that we may remember lots of things we think are so, but not as many things that we can say when and where we learned them. Sometimes we might want to question those things we know but can’t say why we know them.

Remember that you heard this on OK?

  • Forgetting things may not be a memory problem (
  • Learning to feel (
  • Your autobiography as therapy (
  • Mental Health, Self-improvement & Happy life – January 2013 Best of Blog (
  • Are you a Mind Reader? (

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3 thoughts on “How did you know that? When and where we learn things matters.

  1. Pingback: Taking stock of yourself. Posts about self-discovery | counselorssoapbox

  2. Pingback: Warning – 6 reasons what you learned may not be true! | counselorssoapbox

  3. Pingback: Want to write a post for counselorssoapbox? | counselorssoapbox

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