Meet Your Memory: What Is It?

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People can learn anamazing number of different things. We can learn to walk, dance, and swim. We can learn to type, repair watches, and program computers. We can learn to drive cards, ride bikes, and fly airplanes. We can learn languages, chemical formulas, and mathematical proofs. We can learn to read road maps, make out income tax returns, and balance checkbooks. The list of things we can learn todo could be continued almost indefinitely.

Of course, all this learning would be useless if we could not remember. Without memory we would have to respond to every situation as if we had never experienced it. The value of memory is also shown by the fact that we reason and make judgments with remembered facts. In addition, we are able to deal with time, relating the present to the past and making predictions about the future, because of what is stored in the our memories. Even our own self-perceptions depend on our memories of the past.

The uses and the capacity of the human memory are indeed amazing. You can store billions of items of information in your memory. Your two-pound brain can store more than today’s more advanced computers. But people also forget. We forget things we would like to remember. We forget names, anniversaires, birthdays, and appointments. We forget what we learned for an exam in school (usually within a short time after the exam, and sometimes before the exam).

What is your memory? How does your memory work? Some understanding of the theories underlying memory techniques can help in using the techniques more effectively and also in being motivated to use them.

What are the stages and processes of memory?

Remembering is generally viewed as consisting of three stages:

  1. Acquisition or encoding is learning the material in the first place.
  2. Storage is keeping the material until it is needed.
  3. Retrieval is finding the material and getting it back out when it is needed.

To help remember these three stages, we can refer to them as the “Three Rs of Remembering”: Recording (acquisition), Retaining (storage), and Retrieving (retrieval).

Another way to remember the three stages of memory is by referring to the “Three Fs of Not Forgetting”. Corresponding with Fixating, Filing, and Finding.

The three stages of memory can be illustrated by comparing the memory to a file cabinet. You first type the desired information on a piece of paper (Recording). Then you put it in a file cabinet drawer under the appropriate heading (Retaining). Later you go to the file cabinet, find the information, and get it back out (Retrieving).

Sometimes when a person cannot locate what he wants in a file cabinet it may be because the information was never recorded; sometimes it may be because the recorded information was never put into the cabinet; but often it is because the information was not put in the cabinet in such a way as to be easy to find. Suppose a person using the file cabinet throws letters and documents haphazardly into the drawers. A few months later he goes to the cabinet to retrieve a specific document. He would likely have a problem getting it. Why? Because it was not recorded? No, the document had been typed. Because it was not retained? No, the document had been put in the cabinet. How the document was stored is the problem.

Similarly, most problems in remembering come at the retrieval stage than the storage stage. We are all every aware that memory is limited more in getting things out than getting them in. More can be stored in memory than can be retrieved. There is not much we can do to improve retrieval directly, but retrieval is a function of how the material is recorded and retained. Therefore, improved  methods of recording and retaining will improve retrieval, both from a file cabinet and from your memory. The principles and methods discussed in this book will help you record and retain information in such a way as to be able to retrieve it more effectively.

It is useful to distinguish between material in memory that is accessible and material that is available. This distinction can be illustrated by the boy who asks his father, “Dad is something lost when you know where it is?” His father replies, “No, son.” Clearly relieved, the boy responds, “Good, your car keys are at the bottom of the well.” The keys were available but they were not accessible. Similarly, material that is misplaced in a file cabinet is available because it is stored, but it is not accessible because it cannot be retrieved. However, if the material is not even in the file cabinet  then it is neither accessible nor available. Likewise, material that is recorded and retained in your memory may not be accessible even if it is available; you know it is in there somewhere, but you just cannot find it. In this siuation, the answer to the boy’s question may be, “Yes, something can be lost even when you know where it is.”

In addition to the three stages of memory there appear to be at least two different processes involved in memory - short-term memory (also called primary memory and working memory) and long-term memory (also called secondary memory). The distinction between short-term memory and long-term memory is more than just a semantic distinction between remembering for a short time and remembering for a long time. Most psychologists view short-term memory and long-term memory as being two separate storage mechanisms that differ in several ways, although some psychologists have suggested that they are not really different mechanisms but merely different manifestation of the same mechanism (such as different levels of processing).

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