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How Memory Works (And How You Can Make It Work for You)

How Memory Works (And How You Can Make It Work for You)

Ever lose your car keys? Have trouble remembering a word that feels like it’s on the tip of your tongue? Forget why you walked into a room?

Memory can appear simple, like a videotape in your head that either turns on or doesn’t. You either remember or you don’t, right?

Not so much.

In reality, memory is a wildly complex process that experts are still figuring out. But diving into how memory works and what current research is discovering can help you better understand how to make memory work for you. So, how does memory work?

How Memory Works: The Basics

Neurons and Synapses

At its most basic level, memory is about neurons and synapses. Neurons are nerve cells in the brain, and synapses are the junctions between neurons. The synapses carry signals from neuron to neuron. These are the pathways that can form memories.[2]

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow the neurons to send their signals through the synapses. So, chemicals in your brain trigger neurons to signal other neurons through their synaptic connections.[3][4]

Neural connections aren’t forever. The brain is constantly changing because your neural pathways are constantly forming and eroding, weakening and strengthening.[5]

If you want to increase the chances of remembering something, a good start is to beef up these pathways. In short, use the neural pathway so you don’t lose them.[6]

The 3 Stages of Memory[7]

1. Encoding

Before a memory can form, we first have to sense something. Let’s say we see a table or smell a flower. This is called sensory input.

Encoding is the process of changing that sensory input so that it can potentially be stored later as a memory.

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There are three different ways encoding happens: visual, acoustic, and semantic.

Visual encoding is when the sensory input is being changed into a picture or visual representation. Acoustic is auditory and semantic involves words.

For example, when you are studying a picture, you are using visual encoding. When you say someone’s name over and over to try to remember it, you are using auditory encoding to try to store that name in your memory. And when you write down ideas in your own words, you’re activating semantic encoding.

2. Storing

After a sensory input gets encoded, the brain has two major ways of storing that encoded information as memory.

The first is in short-term memory. Short-term memory occurs predominately in your prefrontal cortex, which is behind your forehead. The brain can only hold a limited amount of information in short-term memory before it is either turned into long-term memory or forgotten.

The other major category of memory storage is long-term memory. Long-term memory requires short-term memories to be consolidated. This happens when neural pathways are strengthened by an increased number of signals, especially in the brain region called the hippocampus.

There are many types of long-term memory including procedural, declarative, implicit, and explicit.

Procedural memory does not require us to consciously recall information. Think about riding a bike, procedural memory is a kind of implicit memory, which means we don’t have to consciously recall anything.

On the other hand, declarative memory is when you can consciously recall facts or figures. Declarative memory is a kind of explicit memory, which means we do consciously recall information.

3. Retrieval

The final stage in memory formation is retrieval.

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Retrieval is when you recall information through those neural pathways that previously encoded and stored information. The interesting part of retrieval is that it is never exactly the same as when the input was encoded or stored.

Retrieval is like a reconstruction of what was encoded and stored. It is not at all like a video recording that can be played and replayed, and stays the same each time.

The act of retrieval is actually a creative act. The brain has to sift through all kinds of neural noise to recreate or recall the memory. So, much of our accuracy at remembering really depends on what competing, neural pathways are also signaling.

Scientists have recently discovered that retrieval also depends a great deal on what the brain has forgotten.[8]

The Importance of Forgetting

Recently, scientists have discovered that neurons in the hypothalamus clear out old memories during sleep.[9]

Some scientists now think that forgetting things is an active mechanism in the brain that actually helps us clear out less important information in order to better retrieve the important ones.[10]

Scientists discovered a group of neurons in mice’s brains that were active during R.E.M. sleep.[11] These neurons were suppressing other neurons in the hippocampus, essentially clearing out some memories during the dream stage of sleep.

They think this might be why people struggle to remember their dreams. There’s an active forgetting process occurring at that time to clear out some of the neural pathways, thereby clearing out some of the neural noise in the brain to make retrieval of important memories easier.

Now that we’ve answered, “How does memory work,” you can start to make your memory work better for you.

How You Can Make Your Memory Work for You

1. Practice Different Encoding Strategies

Because the brain encodes inputs in three different ways, experiment with all three (visual, auditory, and semantic) to see which is more effective for you personally.

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Everyone’s brain is different, there are lots of different types of memory, and each brain has billions of neurons, so it makes sense that encoding isn’t going to be the same for every person and in every situation.

So, mix it up. Draw a picture, repeat something aloud, and put it in your own words.

Many people think auditory encoding is crucial for long-term memory, so try to turn information into a song or repeat something aloud numerous times to consolidate information into long-term memories.

2. Don’t Just Remember with Your Brain

Some memory happens in the body. Think procedural memory. So don’t forget about using your whole body to try to remember better.

Get out of your chair. Walk around. Dance while reciting the information you want to remember.

3. Pay Closer Attention to Sensory Inputs

Memory starts with sensory inputs, so the more you tune in to your environment and the people around you, the more likely you will remember things.

Make things important. Pay attention. Be mindful of what’s going on around you. Memory starts with perception, so put the phone down and give your brain some concentrated inputs.

4. Write Stuff Down

Memory is imperfect and requires encoding, so another way to make memory work for you is to write things down. Writing is a kind of semantic encoding but it’s also an active, embodied experience, which will get more parts of your brain on board.

5. Get Your 8 Hours of Sleep

Since some scientists now think clearing out old pathways is important to the retrieval of other memories, you need to give your brain the chance to clear out some of that noise.

Get a full night’s rest, so that you can have some solid rounds of R.E.M. sleep. This gives your brain a chance to clear out unimportant pathways and boost retrieval.

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6. Use It or Lose It

Memory is an active process, so practice that process regularly. Strengthen your pathways to have a better chance of remembering the things you want to remember.

7. Get Some Exercise

Move your body and get some oxygen flowing into your brain. Some studies show that exercise helps strengthen your memory.[12] It reduces inflammation in the brain, which enhances your neurons’ ability to create their pathways.

8. Know That Memory Is a Creative Process

Now that you know that memory isn’t just a perfect recording, use that to your advantage.

Practice your retrieval, but be open to other people’s interpretations of the past. Memory is imprecise. Be okay with the imprecision.

Final Thoughts

How does memory work? Memory starts with sensory inputs then moves on to encoding, storing, and retrieval. The very act of remembering something hinges on the strength of our neural pathways and the amount of competition between other pathways.

The good news is that the brain is plastic, meaning it changes. It changes the most when we are young, but it’s encouraging to know that throughout our lives, it never stops changing.

We are constantly forming, reforming, and eroding pathways in the brain. Which pathways you deem important and which you focus on will determine how your brain remembers in the future.

So, be conscious and intentional about your pathways. Be mindful of your sensory inputs and then intentional in how and what you encode and then what you consolidate into long-term memory.

And use it or lose it. Memory is active and complex, and the more we practice and get to know it, the stronger and healthier our pathways will be in the future.

More About Memory

Featured photo credit: bruce mars via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] McLeod, S. (2013). Stages of memory: encoding storage and retrieval. Retrieved September 23, 2019
[2] Matlin, M. W. (2005). Cognition. Crawfordsville: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
[3] Stierwalt, S. (2016, November 19). How memory works and 6 tips to improve it. Retrieved September 23, 2019
[4] Texas A&M University. (2016, May 17). How does memory work? ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 23, 2019
[5] Sternberg, R. J. (1999). Cognitive psychology (2nd ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
[6] Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63 (2): 81–97.
[7] McLeod, S. (2013). Stages of memory: encoding storage and retrieval. Retrieved September 23, 2019
[8] Science Mag: REM sleep–active MCH neurons are involved in forgetting hippocampus-dependent memories
[9] The New York Times: Scientists Identify Neurons That Help the Brain Forget
[10] Berry, J.A., Cervantes-Sandoval, I., Nicholas, E.P., & Davis, R.L. (2012, May 10). Dopamine is required for learning and forgetting in drosophila. Neuron, 74 (3): 530-542.
[11] Izawa, S, Chodhury, S., Miyazaki, T., Mukai, Y., Ono, D., Inoue, R., Ohmura, Y., Mizoguchi, H., Kimura, K., Yoshioka, M., Terao, A., Kilduff, T., & Yamanaka, A. (2019, September 20). REM sleep-active neurons are involved in forgetting hippocampus-dependent memories. Science, 365 (6459): 1308-1313.
[12] Harvard Health: Exercise can boost your memory and thinking skills

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Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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Published on November 23, 2020

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

Your neighbors downstairs are playing loud music. Again. How do they not get tired of partying? And why do they choose songs with such a heavy downbeat that the glass in your cupboard is vibrating every two seconds? What can you do to get some peace that you deserve? What should you?

Human mind tends to go in circles whenever faced with a problem without a clear solution. It becomes easy to forget the big picture and get lost in anger and self-pity, wasting our precious time, energy and enthusiasm.

Would it not be nice if we always remembered to put things in perspective?

Would it not be more efficient to face all kinds of problems, from tiny annoyances to life-changing emergencies, with a calm demeanor, sharp focus and fearless determination to promptly take the most efficient action possible?

Alas, humans are not like that. All too often we let anxiety or greed get the best of us and make a rushed or shortsighted decision that we quickly come to regret. Other times, we spend weeks or months at an impasse, rehashing the exact same arguments, unable to accept the compromise required to move forward with any of the available options.

Buddhists talk about getting lost in the “small self.” In this state of mind, we literally forget the big picture and focus on the small one. We start taking our daily problems too personally and, paradoxically, becomes less capable of solving them in an efficient manner. And this is the opposite of big picture thinking.

Let me share with you a story related to big picture thinking…

In 1812, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia.[1] After a decisive Battle of Borodino, the capture of Moscow and therefore Napoleon’s victory in the war seemed inevitable.

Unexpectedly, the Russian Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov made a highly controversial decision of retreating and allowing the French to capture Moscow. Much of the population had been evacuated taking supplies with them. The city itself was set on fire and large parts of it burned into the ground.

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After waiting in vain for Russia to capitulate, Napoleon had to retreat in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. He won the battle but lost the war. The campaign ended in a disaster and the near destruction of the French army.

What can we learn from this historical lesson?

1. Focus on the Consequences

Napoleon focused on the important part: capturing Moscow. Nobody could accuse him of thinking small. Yet he overlooked that the Russian army could still fight even after giving up the country’s most important city.

So was Moscow not an important target after all?

Success expert Brian Tracy has a litmus test: things are important to the extent that they have important consequences. Things are unimportant to the extent that they have no important consequences.[2]

When faced with a choice, ask yourself, what would be the consequences of each option?

  • Want to spend an hour studying or watching the new series on Netflix? What would be the consequences of each option? Netflix can sometimes be a better choice, but it helps to put things in perspective.
  • Want to maintain your apartment by yourself or to pay a cleaning service? Would would be the consequences of each option?
  • Want to meet up for coffee with this acquaintance of yours or catch up on your work instead? What would be the consequences of each option?

The choice can be different for different people. An aspiring filmmaker may have a legitimate reason for choosing Netflix. Personally, cleaning your own apartment can be relaxing and nourishing even if the economics of hiring a cleaner looks compelling because you are earning a high hourly rate.

This is where you will need a basic idea of who you are — what are your goals, values and aspirations.

2. Flip Defeat Into Victory

Kutuzov managed to turn Russia’s defeat into a historic victory by recasting the problem in a wider context: losing Moscow need not mean losing the war.

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Despite the symbolic meaning attached to the Kremlin, the churches, the priceless treasures that had been stored in the city for centuries, the outcome of the campaign was ultimately determined by the strength of the remaining armies.

If you can adopt this result-oriented perspective, many of your personal defeats may be flipped into victories as well. Few events in a human life are absolutely good or absolutely bad, and it usually takes many years to recognize in retrospect, what role a particular encounter did play in your story.

Therefore we have every reason to look for the good in the things that happen to us.

This is a very practical attitude, far from baseless “positive thinking.” After all, if something unfortunate has happened to you and you find good sides in this circumstance, you will then be better positioned to take advantage of those good sides.

Say your noisy neighbors are affecting your productivity. What if it is a blessing in disguise? How can you turn this defeat into a victory?

  • Perhaps you are too serious about life and could learn how to have more fun. Join your neighbors or go out for a walk instead of working;
  • Perhaps you only wanted to be productive while instead procrastinated on social media. Now that your procrastination has been interrupted, stop and acknowledge this much greater obstacle to your productivity;
  • Perhaps you are too sensitive to interference. Take this opportunity to practice ignoring the noise and doing your best anyway;
  • Perhaps you have a victim mentality and the feeling of unfairness drains you more than any actual nuisance your neighbors might have caused. Try accepting this lapse in your productivity the way you would accept bad weather.

Get used to finding opportunities in your problems. This is the quintessential big picture thinking.

3. Ask for Advice

Both Napoleon and Kutuzov had trusted advisers to discuss their affairs with. In general, getting a different perspective — or several — can only help inform your understanding and lead to better decisions. Just ensure that the people giving you advice are competent in the particular area where experience is needed.

Paying money for advice can also be a wise investment. Lawyers, tax accountants, medical doctors spend years learning how to assist people like yourself in living more successful, more fulfilling lives.

A quick legal consultation can save you a fortune down the line or even keep you out of big trouble. A medical check-up can uncover potential issues and help keep you healthy and active for years to come.

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Even big, complex dilemmas at your job or in your romantic relationship can be tackled more effectively by partnering up with a coach or a therapist or, of course, with the help of a wise friend.

4. Beware of Biased Advice

Many imperfect decisions occur in response to an imperfect piece of advice that you choose to act on. This advice often comes from a biased party.

For example, we are often encouraged to buy something that we supposedly need:

  • Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a special lotion.
  • Fortify your health by taking multivitamins.
  • Connect with your friends by sending them elaborate gifts.
  • Brighten your weekend by consuming a delicious pastry.
  • Become more productive by getting a faster computer.

However, most purchases are unnecessary.

Some, such as the sunscreen, do have legitimate benefits when used properly.[3] Others, such as multivitamins, only make a difference for a small group of people.[4]

Advertisers of those benefits inevitably want to narrow your focus in order to overstate the importance of their product. They frequently present it as the only solution to your problem, whether real or imaginary.

After all,

  • Skin can also be protected from the sun by wearing appropriate clothing.
  • Health can be better fortified by consuming a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Spending time or talking on the phone with your friends is the foremost way of connecting with them, and it is virtually free.
  • Your weekend can be brightened by doing something that you love.
  • You can become more productive by focusing on the tasks that have the most important consequences. A faster computer can, in fact, decrease productivity by making it easier to multitask and by enabling your favorite distractions.

There are other sources of imperfect advice. Politicians also frequently want us to focus on a particular “big picture,” to the exclusion of the alternatives.

Even loving parents can be guilty of the same. They can advise their children to pick a career path that is safe and respectable, based on their “big picture” that in life one has to make a living. A child may disagree, however, based on another “big picture” that one’s life has to have meaning and fulfillment.

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Bottom Line

It is human nature to make rushed, emotional decisions based on incomplete information, then regret those decisions later on.

You can protect yourself from poor judgment by striving to attain the big picture when careful consideration is called for.

Focus on the consequences of your decision before considering how you feel about it.

Play with the cards you’ve been dealt, but look for opportunities in each situation and you will find them.

Ask knowledgeable mentors for advice, but beware of biased people who have an opinion, but do not necessarily have your best interest in mind.

Yet remember, true big picture thinking comes from hard-won experience. Legendary military commanders Napoleon Bonaparte and Mikhail Kutuzov were both injured on the battlefield.

Clear thinking comes from putting your big picture to the test of reality.

More Tips on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Haneen Krimly via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Wikipedia: French invasion of Russia
[2] Brian Tracy: No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline
[3] American Academy of Dermatology: Say Yes to Sun Protection
[4] Harvard Medical School: Do multivitamins make you healthier?

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