Understanding Memory And How It Works
I’m sure there have been times when you’ve been upset because you forgot an important appointment. But just imagine what it would be like if you never forgot anything and were able to remember everything that had ever happened in your life, including all the good and all the terrible things. I think it is really great that the brain protects us by letting us forget some memories most of all, the embarrassing ones. But the brain also allows us to influence our memories and how we remember the information it stores. Current research tells us that we have three different chronological layers of memory, which helps us to control our daily lives. Th e length of time for which stimuli (information) are stored or remembered differs greatly and depends on the complexity of those stimuli. It ranges from a fraction of a second to a lifetime.
Try to visualize this layer of memory as a preliminary “sieve,” as it was first thought of in the mid-eighteenth century. The retention period of this layer is limited to a few seconds, during which information is assessed and a check is conducted to determine whether it links to information already stored in the brain which indicates whether the information is important. Only stimuli classified as being important are passed on; all other information is considered superfluous and is lost.
The performance of the ultra-short-term memory is highly dependent on your ability to concentrate, signalling to the brain that the stimuli received at a specific moment are high priority. If your thoughts wander when you are listening to someone, you are no longer concentrating and no longer receptive to information. The brain no longer receives the signal indicating that it should pay attention and filter information to allow you to continue the conversation.
With the assistance of memory training, you will succeed in increasing your ability to pay attention. Even when a discussion has gone on for some time, you will still be able to remember the beginning of a question and give a precise answer. It is worth increasing your own attentiveness, since asking for a question to be repeated does not leave a good impression.
Even if important information is stored in your short-term memory, there is no guarantee that you can retain it in the long term. As the name suggests, this layer of memory stores information for only a relatively short time, which ranges from a few seconds to a few days, depending on how much significance was attributed to that information. Th is significance can be based on the quality of the stimulus itself or on reinforcement through repetition so that it is stored for a longer period of time.
When information is to be saved, the contents of the short-term memory are passed over to the long-term memory via an interim store. Th is is a complicated process that can take as long as a few minutes or a few hours.
Today there is almost universal agreement among scientists that the storage capacity of the long-term memory is probability unlimited. Yet there is no answer to the question of whether all the information that has ever been stored in a person’s long-term memory is available for his or her entire lifetime. Although it’s possible that this is true, you don’t always have the key to access this information again. Th rough various forms of memory training, strategies, and techniques, you will succeed in improving your access to your long-term memory. You will ultimately be able to influence which information is relayed from short-term to long-term memory storage by linking important data with unusual associations. This lends the information the importance necessary to prevent it from falling through the sieve of the ultrashort- term memory, emphasizing its importance by visualizing the reason for memorizing, and in doing so, increases your powers of attentiveness.
By creating links to other knowledge already firmly anchored in your long-term memory, you will find it easier to access new information that you store. You will be able to use your knowledge again and again through conscious repetition and other techniques, so that the neural links are cemented and the knowledge becomes permanently etched in your memory (the term etched provides a good image of the memorization process).
Understanding how the memory works will help you understand how mnemonics reflect the brain’s function and how you can greatly improve your memory by applying mnemonics. London taxi drivers are a great example of this. Th ey prepare for their driving test for an average of two years. For this test, they have to prove that they can navigate the massive metropolis with its population of more than 7 million people without looking at a road map. A neurological study conducted by the University College of London proved that the hippocampi (part of the brain) in London taxi drivers is much larger than those of other people. The hippocampus is responsible for helping you find your way around, and the more you train, the more it increases in size.
Watch this video tutorial on how your memory works and how to improve it.