Some things are easier to remember than others. This can depend on how your brain stores information you've learnt and how often you recall the stored information – so strong memories are no accident.
You never forget how to ride a bike, or drive a car, but I bet if someone asked you where you learnt, what you were wearing or who you were with at the time, you probably wouldn’t be able to remember. Why is it that there are some ‘memories’ you never forget, while others are a distant haze?
Memory is the process of acquiring, storing, retaining and eventually recalling information. It’s a complicated process. And it’s not the same for all memories. Let’s see what’s involved.
There are 3 main processes.
Encoding begins with perception (via your senses) and involves attention, which causes the nerves (or neurons) in your brain to become more ‘active’ and start signalling to one another. That makes the experience more intense and increases the chances that the memory will be encoded.
It’s a bit like when you’re in a classroom, and your teacher or lecturer is starting a new topic so you pay attention, and your brain fires up ready to create a new memory.
This stage doesn’t take much effort from you and happens subconsciously. It simply involves the information being ‘held’ in the brain. But the brain has a special way of organising the information to help sort our memories into sensory memories, short-term memories and long-term memories. This filter helps prevent our brains being overloaded with information that we don’t need to keep, while remembering the bits we do.
This is when you access the event or information from the ‘stored’ information. By accessing or ‘remembering’ this information, the brain is once again fired into action – replaying the same patterns in the neurons as in the original event. By doing this it strengthens the memory, because your brain ‘remembers’ where it is and how to access it
It’s like when you recall the information from your lesson, and use it in your homework, you’re re-accessing the memory – and strengthening it at the same time!
The ultra-short term memory – just seconds long – that enables you to take in information about the world around you. For example the sights and sounds in your maths classroom.
About 20-30 seconds long, these memories consist of the information you are currently focused on. For example the maths problem you currently have in front of you.
These are the memories that last days, weeks, months or years. You may not be aware that you have them, only realising you do when they are drawn upon. Like when you use long division again, pulling the technique from your long-term memory.
Short-term memories can be converted to long-term memories by a process called memory consolidation. This is when the brain stores the memory based on meaning and association, and creates new connections and pathways in the brain.
Long-term memories are stored in multiple locations throughout the brain, that might be associated with the particular area or sense that it is associated with. For example a sight may be stored in a separate section to a sound, but both are linked to the same memory. This means there are multiple pathways that allow the memory to be retrieved. By recalling the information over and over again, these pathways become stronger meaning you can access the memories more easily and more accurately.
We’re all familiar with the concept of forgetting. Whether it’s that email you were supposed to send this morning, or the name of that restaurant you visited last year, we all have trouble remembering things sometimes. But why? There are several explanations for forgetting, including failure to properly store the information in the first place, competition with other memories that interfere and make it difficult to remember, and failure to retrieve the memory. This might be because you haven’t accessed the memory enough, so the information hasn’t been recalled – and therefore the pathway within the brain to that memory has not been strengthened. So it’s no surprise that you’ll find exams much harder if you haven’t spent time recalling what you were taught by studying.
Memory is critical to so many aspects of life – whether it’s remembering your assignment that’s due next week, memorising that text book or not forgetting the short cut roads to the office. Make sure you’re doing all you can do to support it and your cognitive health!
References available upon request.