Our Memory Is Everything - That We Know!

What is memory is discussed as it is a basic function of the human brain.  Also discussed is how to boost or improve your memory and what are the causes of memory loss.

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

Aristotle and Plato, Greek philosophers, discussed memory in their teachings.  They believed that we are born free of any knowledge.  They concluded, therefore, that we are the sum of our experiences.  They also realized that memories fade over time.

But, what is memory?  Why does it fade or degrade over time?  Why do we become "absentminded"?  Why do some people remember better than others?  Is information not stored properly?  These are the questions that I will answer.

Since time immemorial, man has tried to understand memory and how it works.  I will try to make this complicated topic easy to understand.

Memory is the process by which we acquire information, store it and 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 recall past events.  Memories are not unique to humans.  Our dogs, for example, are happy to see us.  They, obviously, remember 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.

You have probably heard that the mind can only think of one thing at a time.  That, I believe, is true.

Three Stages of Memory!

Memory is not all located in one part of the brain.  It appears to be scattered as retrieving an event is likely to be a "brain-wide" process.  It may be that way, to avoid losing everything if one part of the brain is injured. 

Some psychologists and neurologists believe that the brain is similar to a computer where folders and files are stored.  Interestingly, research has revealed that it is much more complicated than that.

Although there are many types of memory such as episodic, paired associate learning, free recall, declarative, etc., I promised that I would keep this easy to understand.  With that in mind, I will describe the most basic types of memory:

Sensory memory which is the earliest learned.  It is what we learn from the environment and it is only stored briefly unless it goes into our short-term memory.  It last less than a second via our visual sense and only 3 or 4 seconds as auditory information.  It is, therefore, very temporary.

Short-term memory is the information that we are currently aware of or are thinking about.  Freudian psychology refers to it as our conscious mind.  It is our way of paying attention to our sensory memory.  It can last up to 30 seconds. It is believed that this exists in the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain.  (Have you ever been driving and don't recall where you've been because you were on the phone?)

Long-term memory refers to our storage of information.  This is our "working memory" which we use when it is needed.  As we all know, sometimes it is easy to recall things, while all too often it is difficult to recall something.  Studying is an attempt to store information in our long-term memory.  Ideally, once it is stored, it can be retrieved as it should be persistent and stable. 

Long-term memory is widely spread throughout the brain.  It tends to be updated during the retrieval of information.  For example, I remember my childhood telephone number as Hilltop-5-8890.  I suspect that was updated each time that I recalled it. 

More of What is Memory?

Think about where we would be and how we would function without memory.  Actually, we are the sum total of what we remember - our relationships, history, everything that we have learned, our previous experiences, etc.

Imagine what our lives would be like if we had no recall - no memory.  All of our experiences would mean nothing, if they could not be retrieved.  That would include impressions, skills, habits, and learned facts.

One of the keys to remembering something is by grouping facts or "chunking".  That is why telephone numbers are separated by dashes and credit card numbers are in groups of three or four numbers.  A telephone number without "chunking" would be difficult to memorize.  For example, 2674231881 versus 267-423-1881. 

Return to the top of What is Memory.

Go to What is Memory? - Part 2.  Topics discussed are: How Memory Works, Retrieval of Information, and the Learning Technique That I Taught Myself!