What Is Memory and How Does It Work?

An Overview of Memory and How it Works

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Have you ever wondered how you manage to remember information for a test? The ability to create new memories, store them for periods of time, and recall them when they are needed allows us to learn and interact with the world around us. Consider for a moment how many times a day you rely on your memory to help you function, from remembering how to use your computer to recollecting your password to log-in to your online bank account.

The study of human memory has been a subject of science and philosophy for thousands of years and has become one of the major topics of interest within cognitive psychology. But what exactly is memory? How are memories formed? The following overview offers a brief look at what memory is, how it works, and how it is organized.

What is Memory?

What exactly is a memory? Essentially, memory is a complex process that involves acquiring, storing, and recalling information. Not all memories are the same, however.

Defining Memory

Memory refers to the processes that are used to acquire, store, retain, and later retrieve information. There are three major processes involved in memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval.

Human memory involves the ability to both preserve and recover information we have learned or experienced. As we all know, however, this is not a flawless process. Sometimes we forget or mis-remember things. Sometimes things are not properly encoded in memory in the first place. Memory problems can range from minor annoyances like forgetting where you left your car keys to major diseases that affect quality of life and the ability to function.

How Are Memories Formed?

In order to form new memories, information must be changed into a usable form, which occurs through the process known as encoding. Once information has been successfully encoded, it must be stored in memory for later use. Much of this stored memory lies outside of our awareness most of the time, except when we actually need to use it. The retrieval process allows us to bring stored memories into conscious awareness.

How Long Do Memories Last?

Some memories are very brief, just seconds long, and allow us to take in sensory information about the world around us.

Short-term memories are a bit longer and last about 20 to 30 seconds. These memories mostly consist of the information we are currently focusing on and thinking about.

Finally, some memories are capable of enduring much longer, last days, weeks, months, or even decades. Most of these long-term memories lie outside of our immediate awareness, but we can draw them into consciousness when they are needed.

Using Memory

To use the information that has been encoded into memory, it first has to be retrieved. There are many factors that can influence how memories are retrieved such as the type of information being used and the retrieval cues that are present.

Of course, this process is not always perfect. Have you ever felt like you had the answer to a question right at the tip of your tongue, but you couldn’t quite remember it? This is an example of a perplexing memory retrieval problem known lethologica, or the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon.

Discover the basics of memory retrieval as well as possible problems with this process in this overview of how memories are retrieved.

The Stage Model of Memory

While several different models of memory have been proposed, the stage model of memory is often used to explain the basic structure and function of memory. Initially proposed in 1968 by Atkinson and Shiffrin, this theory outlines three separate stages of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

  • Sensory Memory
    • Sensory memory is the earliest stage of memory. During this stage, sensory information from the environment is stored for a very brief period of time, generally for no longer than a half-second for visual information and 3 or 4 seconds for auditory information. We attend to only certain aspects of this sensory memory, allowing some of this information to pass into the next stage - short-term memory.
  • Short-Term Memory
    • Short-term memory, also known as active memory, is the information we are currently aware of or thinking about. In Freudian psychology, this memory would be referred to as the conscious mind. Paying attention to sensory memories generates the information in short-term memory. Most of the information stored in active memory will be kept for approximately 20 to 30 seconds. While many of our short-term memories are quickly forgotten, attending to this information allows it to continue to the next stage - long-term memory.
  • Long-Term Memory
    • Long-term memory refers to the continuing storage of information. In Freudian psychology, long-term memory would be called the preconscious and unconscious. This information is largely outside of our awareness but can be called into working memory to be used when needed. Some of this information is fairly easy to recall, while other memories are much more difficult to access.

    The Organization of Memory

    The ability to access and retrieve information from long-term memory allows us to actually use these memories to make decisions, interact with others, and solve problems. But how is information organized in memory? The specific way information is organized in long-term memory is not well understood, but researchers do know that these memories are arranged in groups.

    Clustering is used to organize related information into groups. Information that is categorized becomes easier to remember and recall. For example, consider the following group of words:

    Desk, apple, bookshelf, red, plum, table, green, pineapple, purple, chair, peach, yellow"

    Spend a few seconds reading them, then look away and try to recall and list these words. How did you group the words when you listed them? Most people will list using three different categories: color, furniture, and fruit.

    One way of thinking about memory organization is known as the semantic network model. This model suggests that certain triggers activate associated memories. A memory of a specific place might activate memories about related things that have occurred in that location. For example, thinking about a particular campus building might trigger memories of attending classes, studying, and socializing with peers.

    When Memory Fails

    Forgetting is a surprisingly common event. Just consider how often you forget someone’s name or overlooked an important appointment. Forgetting can happen for a number of reasons including a failure to retrieve the information from long-term memory.

    Research has shown that one of the critical factors that influences memory failure is time. Information is often quickly forgotten, particularly if people do not actively review and rehearse the information.

    Learn more about why this happens and discover some of the research into how and why memory fails.

    Why We Forget

    Why do we forget information we have learned in the past? There are four basic explanations for why forgetting occurs: retrieval failure, interference, failure to store and motivated forgetting.

    Sometimes information is simply lost from memory and in other cases it was never stored correctly in the first place. Sometimes memories compete with one another, making it difficult to remember certain information. In still other instances, people actively try to forget things that they simply don’t want to remember.

    Learn more about these reasons why we forget.

    Boosting Memory

    No matter how great your memory is, there are probably a few things you can do to make it even better. Fortunately, cognitive psychologists have discovered a number of techniques that can help improve memory. Learn more about some of these strategies and how you can apply these tips for improving your memory.

    A Word From Verywell

    Human memory is a complex process that researchers are still trying to better understand. Our memories make us who we are, yet the process is not perfect. While we are capable of remembering and astonishing amount of information, we are also susceptible to mistakes and errors.

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