Memory Is Everything!

What is memory Part 2 discusses basic functions of the human brain.  Also discussed are: how to retrieve information and a unique study technique that really works.

As a psychology major in college, I had a strong desire to understand how the human mind works in its many functions.  Memory is just one of those functions.

Memory is the process by which we acquire information, store it and retrieve it to make it available for use in the future.  Without it life would be very difficult.  We could not make decisions or solve problems or interact with others.

Without memory we couldn't recall anything.  We would not know our friends, be able to manage things, mull over ideas or past events.  Many animals have memories.  Our dogs, for example, are happy to see us.

Our minds are unique in that, our memories are outside of our awareness until we need them and retrieve them.  This allows us to concentrate on what we are doing presently, without the enormous amount of information in our mind interfering. 

How Memory Works!

Our brains receive and process information known as "encoding".  Individual neurons are induced by sensory input.  That input persists even after the sensory input disappears.  That is known as memory. 

Then the "encoded" information is stored via changes in the synaptic transmissions between the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain.  The neurons via those synapses connect to other neurons forming neural networks (memory).  This is the end of the anatomy lesson. 

To be used, the information must be retrieved or recalled in response to some cue.  This is extremely important in our daily lives as we need to remember where we parked the car and to remember each of the skills that we have learned.  Without memory, we could not even remember our name.

The retrieved memory may not be a carbon copy of the original experience.  In fact, it may be lost forever.  We refer to it as "forgetfulness".  If a substantial amount of information is lost, it is referred to as amnesia which can be partial, temporary or permanent.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is "hyperthymesia" which is an extremely detailed autobiographical memory.  These people are able to recall a vast number of their life experiences including the day and date that it occurred.  Their recollections occur with little conscious effort or hesitation.

The following is a 60 minutes program that described several people with this type of photographic memory.  Click here to view the program.

William James, the great psychologist, said this:  "If we remembered everything, we should, on most occasions, be as ill off as if we remembered nothing."

What is Memory - Part 2;  Retrieval of Information!

There are countless times that we need to access stored memories.  This is the retrieval process.  This happens many times every day, although we often are not aware of it.  We certainly are mindful of it when we attempt to recall information during an test.

The process of acquiring, storing and recalling information is a complex process.  The retrieval of facts may require the synchronous firing of neurons that were involved during the storage of the data.

It is important to remember that information stored in the brain is not like books on the shelf in a library.  It is on-the-fly reconstruction of data that is scattered throughout our brain.  The neurons in our brains are microscopic cells that are organized in a way that each cell is capable of making thousands of connections.

There are 4 Basic ways to access information from one's long-term memory:

  • Recall - We do this without being cued, when filling in the blanks on a test or filling in information on a form.
  • Recollection - This is done by reconstructing our memory, using partial memories and clues.  We do this when writing an answer to an essay question or meeting someone a second time.
  • Recognition - Involves identifying information that we have seen or experienced before.  We do this on multiple choice tests.
  • Relearning - Requires learning the information that we had learned previously, but no longer can recall.  It is likely that relearned data will be easier to remember in the future.

Learning Technique That I Taught Myself!

While in graduate school, I was working, had a family and needed to customize my study methods.  The above information, which I did not have, would have been very helpful.

Because of my very busy schedule, I needed to find a learning technique that would suit my needs.  I was amazed that, during my grade school and high school education, methods of efficient study were not taught or even discussed. 

This method of learning is very effective, but requires some discipline and therefore would not work for those without some organizational skills.  Here is the learning technique that I came up with (it worked well for me):

Preview what is scheduled to be covered in class.  The best professors will tell you what they will discuss in the next class.

Using a spiral bound notebook, take notes in class on the left page only.

The day of each class, I always recopied my notes on the right page of the spiral notebook, leaving a large margin on the left side of the page.  (Recopying notes did not take very much time.)  The wide margin allowed room for cues that would help me to remember the subject matter better.  Recopying the notes also allowed me to clarify details as the subjects that I was taking were science classes and often difficult courses. 

For some people, including me, copying the class notes solidified the information (sometimes) in my long-term memory.

When it was time to study for an exam, I had a tremendous advantage.  I had legible notes.  I had learning cues (in the margin) and there was one other very important advantage.

Very few people don't become bored when studying.  I believe the reason for the boredom is reviewing notes, which consists of material that they have already learned. 

I placed a colored dot next to the material that I did not know.  The next time I went through my notes, I would do the same thing with a different colored dot (only the material that I did not know would receive a dot)

As exam time got closer, I would only need to review the material with the most recent colored dot.  The result was less material to review - and it was only the material that I did not know.

Often, other students would prefer to review for a test with me - because of this preparation and organization.

One other story about this study technique may interest you.  One of my part-time employees was taking a course in dental hygiene that was very difficult for her.  I explained this way of learning to her shortly after her supervisor told her that she was about to be dismissed from the program.  Her name was Debbie.  She embraced the technique and two years later graduated with lots of A's. 

It worked for Debbie.  It might work for you, too, if you are disciplined enough.


Return to the top of What is Memory? - Part 2.

What is Memory? - Part 1:  discusses the 3 Stages of Memory and More of What's Memory.


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