An Unforgettable Memory: How Your Memory Works and Ways You Can Make It Work Better

When we look at a photograph, what do we see?

People?

A place?

Perhaps our most recent selfie?

Regardless of the photo, we like to think that we’re gazing upon a memory. In reality, our focus is only on a singular moment in time.

The real memory is inside our brains.

We can access a bevy of data that help form a complete picture of the circumstances surrounding the photo versus the single shot we took.

Names of the people in the photo.

The place we took it and how we got there.

How we felt that day. Everything we saw. The sounds and smells we experienced.

Even how to use the camera came from memory.

How exactly does that work? How do we retain and then access all of that information whenever we need it? What, if anything, should we do to keep our memory active, sharp, and always ready to take on more.

What is Memory?

Neuroscience, the study of the human nervous system, which includes the brain, dates back to the 18th century. However, there is evidence that neuropsychology, the specific study of the brain and how it functions, has roots in ancient times from Hippocrates (from a medical standpoint) and Aristotle (from the philosophical side).

Since then, hypotheses about the mind, and how it functions have come and gone. However, there is little denying the fascination that humanity has with the most complex organ in our bodies.

Within our brains, the function of memory - what it is, how it works and how to make it better - is almost at the forefront of our desire to understand the full scope and capabilities of the human mind.

Today, we can clearly define memory as the capacity of the mind to both store and remember information - that information being our life experiences. Beyond that, those experiences or saved data are used to guide and inform our future actions.

How Does Memory Work?

Let’s go back to our photograph example and the use of the camera. At some point in your life, you gained the knowledge to point, click, and shoot to capture specific moments. Regardless of the type of device you are using, you are always able to call upon those three basic tenets to take a picture.

Point, click, shoot.

In its most basic functions, that’s how memory works. As with all things related to the brain though, it’s not so simple.

Modern scientists have a far better, albeit incomplete, understanding of how we sort through and deal with the memories we make each day. Referred to as the three stages of memory, it's one of the critical areas where we've made significant strides in knowing how we process, store, and retrieve memories.

The three stages of memory start with encoding:

Encoding

The process of memory begins at the point of our acquisition of information.

Once we take in data - for example, the name of individual we just met - it is changed into a format more efficient for storage and retrieval. The encoding process utilizes our senses to make this happen.

Using the meeting with the new individual as a guide, these are the four ways the information can be coded:

  • Acoustically - You use an auditory method, such as repeating the person's name verbally (or pseudo-verbally in your head) so you can absorb it now and recall it later.
  • Elaborative - You utilize knowledge you already possess to retain new data. In our example, perhaps the new person works with other individuals you already know, at a company you do business with, in a city where you frequently travel. You draw connections from those known items to the new person’s name.
  • Semantically - You place meeting the individual in a specific context or setting. If you meet the person in a restaurant, you will associate them with that restaurant.
  • Visually - You call upon visual cues such as the person’s physical features or what they were wearing to develop a mental image that can be used later to identify them.

This process, according to scientists, occurs in both the hippocampus and frontal cortex of your brain. Akin to saving a computer file, these areas review the data, determine if they are worthwhile and if so, shift them to the correct area of storage.

Storage

After a memory is encoded, it then heads to storage so that we can access it later. When most people think about how memory works, storage is typically what they most often reference.

It’s commonly believed there are two types of memory storage: short-term and long-term.

Short-Term Memory

Also sometimes referred to as working memory, short-term memory is immediate, the place where we keep information for a limited time (just seconds in many cases) before it breaks down and is forgotten.

Not only is the duration brief, but so is the capacity, with only a handful of data points able to be accessed at any given time.

Let’s go back to our name example and assume that person is a customer service rep you are speaking with to resolve an issue. They tell you their name, and you repeat it for encoding, but its stored for only the duration of the time you are speaking with them.

In other words, short-term memory allows you to quickly obtain the information you need now, but probably won’t later.

To understand how quickly something can be forgotten, if you don’t repeat the person’s name, you may end up asking them to repeat it at some point during the call.

Now, if the person is somebody that you may have repeat interactions with, information about them will transfer to long-term memory.

Long-Term Memory

This is where memories go for a longer span.

The transfer between short and long-term memory occurs through repetition or continued interaction with and use of particular data points.

For instance, the more often you interact with someone you just met, over time you’ll commit more specifics about them to your long-term memory (how they talk, how they dress, likes and dislikes, etc.). It primarily comes down you deeming the information as significant and committing it long term so you can recall it as needed.

In contrast to the extremely narrow shelf life of short-term memory, long-term memory can, in fact, last the duration of your life.

Retrieval

The final stage of memory is retrieval.

This is where you call upon the retained data in your mind for use in a particular situation or scenario.

For example, the use of the camera we referenced at the start of this article or re-engaging the person you met in our latter scenario at a later date.

When recalling a memory, there are two ways to access it: recall and recognition.

  • Recall is when you are accessing information directly from a memory, without any sensory or associative cues. An example most often cited with this form of retrieval is when answering a fill in the blank question.
  • Recognition requires a cue or trigger to access the memory. If you were to see a stranger that resembled someone you previously dated, this would elicit memories of the prior relationship.

Although retrieval is relatively straightforward, failure to recall specific memories can prove difficult to accept. Many times the inability to remember something stems from improper encoding, usually as a result of not paying enough attention or being distracted.

In other instances, the code and cues may be slightly off resulting in a mismatch of information - trying to remember a favorite restaurant, but mistaking it instead for another.

A person’s memory is by no means perfect.

We commonly can’t put a name with a face, often misquote favorite movies, and can have a hard time recalling even basic information we probably should know (do you know when your car inspection sticker expires or your license plate number).

However, those things are normal.

Complacency and poor habits, however, can have a negative impact on your mind, severely limiting your ability to store and retrieve memories. Even though our brains and the memories contained within will eventually start to deteriorate with age, there are numerous ways to keep your memory sharp for many years to come.

How to Improve Your Memory

Like other areas of your body, your brain requires maintenance and regular upkeep for it to remain healthy and functional. These same habits will also improve your memory.

Rest Your Mind

Perhaps more so than any other brain-boosting technique, sleep is essential to your memory operating at its best.

Many of us don’t get enough sleep. Some of us get an alarmingly small amount. This isn’t a good pattern if you hope to keep your memory storage at a maximum level.

Think about days when you don’t get an ample amount of shut-eye. Aside from constant yawning and dragging your feet, your mind operates in a fog.

Recalling simple thoughts is a burden.

Accessing your long-term memory is akin to remembering where you put a needle, in a stack of needles.

To ensure to get the most out of your sleep, avoid TVs, tablets, and smartphones when it's time for bed as they interrupt your bodies natural inclination to fall asleep. Additionally, stick to a regular regimen of when you go to bed and when you wake.

In the same manner, give yourself breaks during extended periods of study or throughout an important project. Not only will it give you much-needed downtime, but you’ll also come back to your work much sharper and more rejuvenated.

Create a Healthy Lifestyle for Your Body (and Your Brain)

The physical and mental exercise you need to keep your memory on point goes hand in hand.

From a physical standpoint, we all know that an active lifestyle is good for us in general, but exercises that get you and your heart moving are great for getting your mind moving too. Also, any exercises or activity that requires hand-eye coordination can promote growth in your brain.

With exercise also comes eating and living healthy. All of those things you hear about too much sugar and too many carbs being bad for your body? Those can also negatively impact your memory as well. So will smoking, drinking, and several other more nefarious substances.

For brain health, keep your diet full of fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 foods (fish). Limit unhealthy fat and calories and reduce your caffeine intake as much as possible.

Mentally, you need to pump up your brain as well, and one of the critical factors in building your memory function is to challenge it.

Our mind is wired to grow, so we need to stretch its capabilities. This means learning a new skill, or engaging your brain with new tasks and altering its typical routine to feed its capacity.

For example, if you’re already an expert solver of crossword puzzles, doing more of those won’t gain you any particular advantage in improving the health of your head.

Switching over to Sudoku puzzles, however, will give you a new and taxing activity with which to test and expand your brain power.

Focus and Pay Attention

The better your focus or more attentive you are to an event or situation, the more likely you'll remember it.

Think about everything that occurs in the course of a single day.

You wake up, get dressed, drive to work, drink coffee, sit at your desk, work on your computer, go to lunch, and on and on. While the rhythms of your day may differ to some extent, you get the idea.

There’s a lot of useless stuff that happens throughout, which is why zeroing in on what's essential is vital. Spending too much time on the unnecessary will crowd out what is necessary.

This is especially true if you're dealing with challenging information or difficult concepts. Spending a little extra time in grasping the details, will make them more accessible in the future.

Contrary to popular belief, you should also quit multitasking. Attempting to get ahead while juggling many things at once, will, in reality, put you behind. It will also make you forgetful as your encoding and retrieval cues will undoubtedly cross.

Your memory is an incredibly powerful tool that not only enhances your day to day experiences but makes them far easier to sort through.

Understanding how you capture, store and retrieve what matters most will ensure a better appreciation for the things you want or need to remember and allow you to let go of the things you don’t. Not only that, you’ll find with an increased focus, many notions and ideas that once seemed out of reach will come more clearly into view.

Keeping yourself and your mind healthy and fully engaged will also give you something far more rewarding than the singular moment of a picture. It will provide you with a lifetime of experiences.