Introduction to memory
We can all benefit from a better memory. How often do we find ourselves forgetting important dates, people’s names, or information needed for our work or school? No matter what you do, your personal and professional life can benefit from having a better memory.
Is a better memory possible?
Many people believe that they were born with a bad memory, or that poor memory is part of growing old. It is also commonly believed that people with good memory have some special ability, are gifted, or know some ‘secret’ to good memory.
The truth is there is no single secret to a good memory. There are techniques and skills that can be learned by anyone which help improve memory. These techniques and skills can be learned, practiced, and mastered and can be applied to many kinds of memory problems.
What is memory?
We tend to talk about memory as though it is a thing, like a structure that exists in our brain. However, memory is more of an activity, or process (or more accurately, a number of processes). The process of memory involves both the recording of information as well as the recall of it.
Information can be remembered in a number of ways. These include:
- Recall — this is the process of retrieving information from our memory at will.
- Recognition — this is the process of seeing something and being able to recognize it as something we have remembered.
- Relearning — if we have learned something, but not learned it well enough to recall or recognize it, we may still be able to re-learn it faster than if we hadn’t learned it in the first place.
The process of memory has the following stages:
- Recording — this is the initial act of storing information in our memory
- Retaining — this is the process of ensuring information that we had recorded earlier remains ‘remembered’ and is accessible in the future.
- Retrieving — this is the process of pulling information out from our memory.
Failure in any one of these steps leads to forgetting.
While remembering information is important we should not overlook the important role of forgetting. If we had to keep everything in our head all the time we wouldn’t be able to survive in the world. Imagine if all the information you were ever exposed to was always available to you. This would be overwhelming. It would be impossible to sort out what information is relevant and what information is not important.
Most forgetting occurs shortly after learning. The more time that passes, the less we forget of what remains after the initial forgetting. Things that are well learned can be remembered for long periods of time and are not necessarily susceptible to forgetting.
There are several theories about how forgetting occurs:
Decay — memory slowly fades over time, like an unused path that gets overgrown. There is not a lot of research that supports this theory.
Repression — the process of forcing a memory out of consciousness. This generally applies only to unpleasant personal memories you consciously want to forget.
Distortion — sometimes our memory is affected by what we want to remember causing us to recall something in a more favorable way that what really happened. Leading questions can also cause distorted memory. The only known way to deal with this is to be conscious of it.
Interference — this can occur when one memory interferes with another. This can happen in two ways:
- Proactive inhibition — which occurs when past information interferes with new information.
- Retroactive inhibition — which occurs when new information interferes with past memories.
Cue dependency — sometimes memory is dependent on having the right cue to help you recall the necessary information. Not having the right cue can lead to failure in retrieval.
Memory techniques generally focus on ways to reduce forgetting by focusing on decreasing interference and taking advantage of cue dependency.
How to improve your memory
Just practicing memory by trying to remember more, like lifting weights to build muscle, does not improve your memory. However, practicing the memory techniques described on this site such as mnemonics will improve your ability to use these techniques and the effectiveness of using them which leads to better memory and recall of information.
It is important to remember that these techniques will not give you an infallible memory — but they will improve your ability to recall the information you have memorized using these techniques.
For a practical guide to improving your memory, please take a look at my review of Ron White’s Memory in a Month course
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