How memory works – Learn our memory functions

It seems so easy to remember the latest songs and dialogues of our favourite stars,  but when it comes to remembering things in our study books our memory seems to fail us. In fact, I have had students who could remember complete songs and every dialogues of certain films,, but with regards to studies they were certified low memory. One of them even told me that he had been diagnosed as such. This behavior begs the question: why does our memory fail us in some work. The catch word is interest. Without interest every effort will probably fail. However, if you would really like to remember what you study then read on to know how memory works.

Understanding how memory works?

To briefly understand how memory works let me remind you of your favourite dish. I don’t know what dish you love but I am sure when I say that you’ll remember the taste and the aroma along with the way it looks. You will probably even remember when and where you ate it last. That’s how memory works. With interaction. If you have no interaction with certain things there will be no memory of them.

Biologically speaking the brain takes the help of neurons to store memories. However, these neurons don’t work alone. They need a network that has to be activated so that related memories activate the memory one is trying to remember. Nerve cells are connected to each other via synapses. These synapses send electrical pulses that contain information and trigger the release of chemical substances called neurotransmitters. In layman’s language we can say these are triggers to a memory.

You need a memory trigger to retrieve a memory you want to remember

There is a road or Street you walk every day and pass many other people on the way. But you remember only those whom you noticed. But you don’t notice everyone. You notice the man who sings or talks to himself, a person who was involved in some accident or a beautiful or handsome looking person. What do they have in common with regards to your memory? They attracted your attention or interest. There are a hundred others who pass you everyday, but you won’t even know them if introduced. If anyone one of the the people whom you noticed, say the man who sings along on the road is only seen once by you, then you will forget him in a couple of days. His voice and his manner of singing are the triggers you may have noticed. You will need at least a couple of them to remember him some days later. If he comes in front of you after a few days, but does not sing, it will be almost impossible to remember him. However, if he sings then your chances of recall can increase. Similarly, if you see the beautiful face almost everyday for a month, you will recognize it almost anywhere
even after a month. If you help the person involved in an accident and thereafter you meet him or her almost everyday for a month, you’ll remember that person even after a year. So you see when the level of interaction increases, the chances of remembering something or someone also increases.

Types of Memory

Let’s try a more scientific explanation of memory. We have two main types of memory. We have short term memory and long term memory.

A small interaction will be stored in our short term memory and we will be able to recall it inside approximately few seconds. As time goes by the chances of recall grow dimmer. For a memory to become a long term memory the interaction will have to be impactful and consistent.

This is illustrated properly by the forgetting curve. Plotted by Edward Ebinghaus n the 1885 the graph illustrates how you can forget something. As time goes by the memory of anything you had memorized fades away. Slowly, but surely you will forget things unless you consciously review what you want to memorize. We will talk about this is a little detail in another blog.

Stages of memory – learning how memory works

Sensory memory

Sensory Memory is the first stage of memory. It consists of all the information that comes through your senses. This information is held onto by the brain for a few seconds. Depending on what the stimulus is, the memory will then be pushed to Short Term Memory.

Sensory memory can be divided into visual (Iconic), auditory (Echoic) and other senses like taste, smell and touch (Haptic).

Short Term Memory

Short Term Memory as discussed earlier is actually a storage of information for a short term. It stores the information as long as it thinks it is important before letting it fade away. I use the term fade away because it actually feels like that. For example, say you are trying to calculate something. You set aside a part of the calculation so you can add the sum to the total later and then suddenly you get a phone call or your focus shifts to something else and you forget that calculation. When you look at the math sum again, you realize you have to do it all over again.

Short Term memory is also the place where the memory is processed or encoded to be sent to Long Term Memory. This encoding according to many psychologists is the first stage of memory. According to a psychologist the memory will be encoded in three ways

Visual (Picture), Acoustic (Sound) and Semantic (Meaning).

Here you make a conscious effort to remember what you see. Like a name or a phone number. Once you have made an effort to memorize something, it is moved on to the Long term memory. Your efforts can be to remember something visually (visual encoding). If you say it aloud to memorize it, this will be counted as Acoustic encoding. And if you relate the information to an already stored memory it will be counted as Semantic Encoding since you will be giving it meaning.

The brain is constantly making and discarding memories. In other words memories are going from short term to long term or to the recycle bin. The question for us is how to get the memories from short term to long term boxes. when the brain feels an experience or the effort to memorize is strong it puts the memory into the long term box. The experience can be a good or a bad experience. Or an impact-ful experience. Like an accident. Or an embarrassing experience. Like turning up to a formal party in a fancy dress. Or the time when your first crush says yes to a date. Or a surprise lottery or prize win.

Long Term Memory

Long term memory is stored in the brain for later retrieval. Now the long term memory, for us lay people, is the ability to recall it when we want to. As I have explained, this type of memory could be an experience or a conscious effort to memorize something.

There are many types of Long term memory which we may have to dive deep into to learn how memory works, but this article is not for that. However, for your understanding I am writing some of them down here.

Explicit Memory

Episodic Memory, memory of things that happened earlier. It could be a certain episode that happened last night or something that happened years earlier – that night. It also includes the memory of where you were and what you were doing when a big episode happened. Like you would remember where you were or what you were doing when 9/11 happened or your favourite team won the world cup etc.

Autobiographical memory which mean self experience – that you have gone through – a happy, sad or thrilling experience which you would not forget in a hurry. This includes all the life experiences that you have had. You may not remember all of them, but you will definitely remember the ones where the experience was strong.

Semantic memory– things you learn from books and make an effort to memorize for later

Implicit Memory

These are things you learn physically like cycling or swimming and which you can recall at random when you start peddling the cycle or when you jump into the water.

Memory Retrieval

The main reason for this article is to give you a brief insight how memories are made because what we as learners and researchers want is really memory retrieval. Now that you know how our brains makes memories, we now need to learn how to recall this memory when we want to. Hope you now know how memory works. We’ll dive into memory retrieval and its techniques in another article.