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Online Edition — June 2004

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The Help Desk

Get Your Memory in Gear!

It’s safe to say that everyone has experienced an occasional lapse in memory. You forgot to pick up milk on the way home from work, or you can’t remember someone’s name. Trivial memory losses such as these are regular events for many people. Of course, the situation gets more problematic when you’re standing in front of a group and can’t remember part of your speech, or you forget to attend a critical meeting.

Many people assume that they are forgetful or have trouble memorizing, believing that their brains lack the capacity to retain information effectively. In fact, however, very few humans actually have a physiological basis for their memory issues. Instead, most memory problems can be traced to the process used to get information into their memories.

There are specific techniques to use for improving your ability to retain information, and a quick introduction on how your brain commits information to memory will help clarify why those techniques work.

Much like a computer, memory is an information-processing system that involves three components, as follows:

  • Encoding—getting information into the brain.
  • Storage—retaining information.
  • Retrieval—getting information out of the brain.

Unlike a computer, however, human memories are less literal and more susceptible to loss. Also, they are compiled more slowly but multiple memories can be accumulated at one time (unlike a computer that builds memories sequentially).

Figure 1 shows Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin’s three-stage processing model of memory (1968). It includes three types of memory:

  • Sensory memory—a fleeting memory that records sensory inputs (sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste).
  • Short-term memory—where information is encoded for storage.
  • Long-term memory—where stored information is retained and made available for retrieval.

There are two particularly significant aspects of this model that are important to note. First, your brain makes specific decisions about whether or not sensory inputs should be transmitted from sensory memory to short-term memory. This decision is based on your brain’s analysis of the importance of the information. Because our senses are constantly bombarded with inputs, our brains must have a mechanism for limiting how much we store. As is true for many other physiological processes, importance is weighted toward information that affects biological functions (Darwin would have said, “Functions related to survival and reproduction”). This means we are more likely to retain information related to safety and health.

Second, remembering involves retrieving information from your long-term memory and bringing it back into your short-term memory. Since this model was developed, research by Engle (2002) and Alan Baddley (1992, 2001, 2002) has clarified concepts related to short-term memory, which now is called working memory. The idea of working memory is key to understanding how new memories are associated with prior memories, as well as how memories are used to assist with decision making, problem solving, and other cognitive processes. Much like the random-access memory (RAM) on a computer, information is brought into working memory to become part of your current mental consciousness. Rehearsal, or conscious repetition, is essential to retention.

Your ability to remember information is demonstrated in two ways. You either recognize information that you learned in the past, or you recall information. Recognition is easier; you are presented with information, and you remember that you’ve previously learned it. On the other hand, the ability to recall information requires you to access your long-term memory without the presentation of specific cues.

In fact, cues are the key to retrieval, and cues are established during the encoding process. Each time information is brought into your working memory and sent back to your long-term memory, new cues are established. The process of moving information into your working memory, consciously cogitating on it, encoding it, and sending it back for storage in long-term memory is called learning. Having more cues associated with a certain piece of information makes it easier (and faster) to remember it. Those cues are like the tabs on folders in a filing cabinet; they guide you directly to the required information.

Of course, information that moves in and out of working memory and has many cues may still be difficult to access if it’s been a long time since those cues were established. Herman Ebbinghaus, a pioneering researcher in verbal memory, developed a “forgetting curve” that shows the rate of decay of stored information. This curve has a fairly steep drop after learning stops, but it flattens out without dropping to the point where the memory is totally forgotten. In other words, memories aren’t actually lost; they just become harder to retrieve. There is some good news here. Once something is learned and the memories decay, it is much easier to learn it the second time because the original memories just need restimulation.

Although there are many more interesting facts about how the brain creates, accesses, and uses memories, this brief introduction to the components of memory and the information-processing model are sufficient to provide a foundation for understanding several techniques to improve memory. Because the ability to remember information effectively and efficiently is tied most directly to the encoding process, many of these tips relate to how the information is organized for encoding, as well as the environment that exists when encoding is under way.

Tips for Encoding Information

  • Encode information in a way that makes it meaningful to you. If you’re trying to learn the definition of a new vocabulary word, you can look it up in the dictionary and find the author’s words. You will be more likely to remember the definition if you mentally rewrite it, using your own phraseology. You’ll improve your ability to remember it if you create an example that associates the word with something meaningful from your life.
  • Keep rehearsing after you think you’ve learned the information. The adage, “practice makes perfect,” is true. The amount learned depends on the time spent learning. Actually, it’s best to overlearn critical information.
  • Space rehearsals over time. That’s why cramming for tests doesn’t work. It’s interesting to note that the longer the space between practice sessions, the better the retention. Start by having short intervals between rehearsals and gradually increasing the intervals. You’ll transition from active initial learning to relearning, and your memory will improve.
  • Rotate the order of the information you’re trying to learn. All items in a list aren’t remembered equally. Memory research has identified a serial-position effect; it indicates that humans remember the first and last items better than those in the middle. If individual items you’re trying to learn occasionally come at the beginning and end of the study sessions, you’ll be more likely to remember them.
  • Use as many senses as possible to build the memory. Trainers often comment that it’s easier to learn by doing than by hearing or seeing. This is true because learning by doing involves more senses. As each sense gets involved in the learning process, it is encoded separately and associated with the other encoded information, providing more cues for retrieval.
  • Use mnemonic devices (memory aids). Rhymes and jingles are two types of memory aids. Do you still remember the number of days in each month by mentally reciting, “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November?”
    Another mnemonic device involves taking the first letters of key words and connecting them into a summary word. For instance, the word “CHEER” can be used to remember five steps in active listening—concentrate, hear completely, empathize, elicit information, and remember.
  • Chunk information into familiar, manageable units. When learning a telephone number, it’s easier to split it into three sections—the area code, prefix number, and the main number. Chunking works so well that most humans do it naturally.
  • Organize words or concepts into hierarchical groups. Outlining information is one method of organizing it into a hierarchy. Think about organizing the information that moves from the lowest level of detail to the highest level of detail—like drilling deeper into the topic.

Tips for Retrieving Memories

  • Back into the memory. This is called priming, and it involves connecting with the required information through associations. For instance, suppose you were trying to remember a specific species of tree, and it wasn’t coming to mind quickly. You begin by remembering that you first encountered the tree while on a picnic. You imagine yourself at the picnic, eating a sandwich and sitting under the tree. You look up and see its branches and leaves. One leaf falls off and drifts down. You see it has five points, and you recognize its shape as coming from a maple tree.
  • Put yourself in the context of where you originally learned the information. If you’re trying to remember where you put the apple corer, stand in the kitchen and look around. You probably will mentally go back to the last time you put the apple corer away. This is called the context effect. Research shows that a familiar context stimulates memories. You can use the context effect to improve encoding, too, by conducting practice sessions in the same place you expect to use the information.
  • Tap into emotional cues. Words, events, and contexts are not the only retrieval cues. Memories are state dependent; in other words, it’s easier to remember something that you learned when you were happy when you’re currently happy. The emotions that existed become retrieval cues.
  • Manage interferences. It’s not possible (or even desirable) to limit learning to one topic. Each practice session is mingled among other events that affect your memories. These interfere with your ability to remember specific information. Researchers have determined that forgetting is less related to decay than to interference of new information. If you must remember something, learn it well and practice it close to the time you’ll use it to minimize interferences.

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