Our memories are something that we often take for granted. We tend not to spend much time thinking about how our memories work. The only time we really pay attention to our memories is when we are studying for something and want to memorize it or when we forget something. But memory is very important, without memory you wouldn’t be who you are. I am going to explain to you a little bit about our basic memories.
Psychologically memory is the persistence of learning over time that results in information being stored and being able to be retrieved. Everyone’s memory is different. I have memories of my childhood or the things that I have learned that you don’t have. But, aside from that, people’s memories also work differently.
In 1970 Ralph Haber did an experiment where he had people view about 2500 slides. These slides were of faces and places and were shown for about ten seconds. Later he showed the people about 280 of those slides paired with other slides that were not previously shown. His results showed that people recognized about 90% of the slides that they had seen before. Pretty incredible, eh?
Memory used to be compared to a tape recorder. However, recent studies have shown that our memories work more like computers. They are not exact recordings of the information that we hear or see. Instead they are encoded, stored and then retrieved later. What does this mean? Well, encoding is the processing of information onto the memory system, like you reading this article right now. Storage is retaining that information over time; it is stored somewhere in your memory so that you can retrieve it later. Retrieval is the process of getting the information out of your memory at a later time, like while taking an exam.
Computers also encode, store and retrieve information. Of course, our memories are not exactly like computers. They are less literal, you may not remember the exact phrase that you stored earlier, and they are much more fragile. Computers process information quickly but sequentially, but our brains do things slower but all at once.
There are many types of memory, here are some of them. Sensory memory, which is the very brief recording of sensory information in the memory system. For example, it allows you to capture a sea of faces for a short period without bombarding your senses all at once. Short term memory is the activated memory that holds a few items briefly before he information is either stored or forgotten. Which would be like remembering a phone number long enough to dial it, or the beginning of long term-term memory. Long-term memory is the relatively permanent and limitless storehouse of the memory system. For example, remember experiences or your mother’s. It is your knowledge, skills and memory of your past. Working memory is a newer and better understanding of short-term memory. Working memory focuses on conscious and active processing of incoming auditory and visual-spatial information. Working memory associates your new and old information in order to solve problems.
So, how do we encode information? Some information is encoded automatically and some information takes effort. The route you drive to work every day is something that is encoded automatically; you don’t really think about it, you just know where you’re going. Your brain has an enormous capacity for parallel processing, or multitasking. You automatically process information on a daily basis without any conscious effort at all. Some things that we may automatically process are space, time, frequency, and well-learned material.
However, things that are originally effortful can become automatic. Before you learned to read, trying to read information in front of you was effortful. But now, reading is like second nature. You process street signs and whatnot automatically.
Effortful processing takes attention and conscious effort. When we are learning important information like people’s names or information in a class we can boost our memories by using rehearsal. There are many different tips to help you remember things; imagery, mnemonics, spending time understanding, making it memorable to you, chunking and many more.
So I encoded information, now what? Now the brain stores that information. Many experiments have shown that memories aren’t stored in any specific part of the brain. Memory is stored throughout the entire brain and travels through synaptic meeting places.
How do we get that information out? Recall and recognition. You may see something that sparks a memory. A flower that resembles one your boyfriend bought you and so you remember that flower. Recall is when you have to retrieve the information, like when you’re taking a fill-in-the-blank test. Where recognition would be like seeing the flower, or taking a multiple choice quiz.
The context of where you learned the information, believe it or not can have an impact on how well you can retrieve it. Being in the room where you studied may help to spark some of the information that you know. Also, your mood can affect your memory. If you are angry when you study information you are more likely to retrieve it when you are angry. Maybe that is why when we are sad we continue to dig ourselves into our hole of sadness by remembering other times when we were sad.
That is just some brief information on how our memories work. But just knowing and understanding these few things can help us to use our memories to their full potential.