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.


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.


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.


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.


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


[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 2, 2020

How to Use Your Unconscious Mind to Get What You Want

How to Use Your Unconscious Mind to Get What You Want

I get my best ideas when I’m not trying—when I’m zoning out in the shower or taking my dog for a walk. Suddenly, something I’ve been racking my brain to figure out seems to just come to me. It may seem like magic, but it’s actually just my unconscious mind coming through for the win.

What Is Conscious Thought?

Let’s start by explaining what the unconscious mind is not. I want you to think about what your dream house would look like if money were no object. Then, think about where you were the first time you can remember feeling joy.

That voice in your head that was talking you through those two tasks is your conscious mind. Simply put, any thought process that you are aware of (conscious of) is part of your conscious mind. I’m using my conscious mind as I sit here and write this article.

One of the major brain centers for conscious thought is in your prefrontal cortex. This is on the outside of your brain behind your forehead. Some of the downsides of conscious thought are that it’s energetically taxing and finite. What I mean is, your conscious mind can only think one thing at a time, and it burns through a lot of glucose to do so.

Try to figure out the square root of 2400 while creating a grocery list. You can skip back and forth between those two tasks, but your conscious mind can’t wrestle with both simultaneously.

Also, think of a time when you were utilizing your conscious mind for an extended period. Maybe you were in classes all day or busy with a tough work task late into the night. You were probably exhausted after such intensive and extended conscious thought.

What Is the Unconscious Mind?

That’s why the unconscious mind is such a valuable resource. It isn’t energy taxing, and it is virtually limitless. Your unconscious mind could be trying to figure out thousands of problems right now.


The downside is that you aren’t conscious of any of it until you are—until your unconscious thoughts make it into your consciousness.

That’s why it behooves us to figure out how to create the right environment for our unconscious minds to flourish.

System 1 and System 2 Thinking

Daniel Kahneman’s seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow gives us another way to think about the difference between the unconscious and conscious minds. Kahneman describes two different modes of thought called System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is quick, emotional, and intuitive, while System 2 is slow, methodical, and logical. System 1 works in tandem with System 2.

For example, if you see someone looking at you, your System 1 might assume they are upset with you. Then, your System 2 takes over to process information and discern what might actually be going on at that moment.

Kahneman warns us that System 1 and System 2 are metaphors for how the mind works.[1] It would be an oversimplification to try to explain specific regions where System 1 and System 2 thinking takes place. However, System 1 and 2 is a powerful way of thinking about different modes of thinking. Kahneman calls System 1 automatic thinking and System 2 effortful.

The idea of focus is key here. In a famous experiment, participants were told to watch a video and count how many times people in the video passed a ball to each other. This required their System 2 thinking. However, the intense focus required for this experiment caused most people to miss the fact that while the people in the video were passing the ball, a person in a gorilla suit slowly made his way through the shot.


How to Make Your Unconscious Mind Work For You

Focusing too intensely can cause us to miss details and solutions better suited to our unconscious mind. That’s why we sometimes have to stop and chill out, instead of forcing solutions.

Here are five ways to make your unconscious mind work for you.

1. Manage Stress

Your unconscious mind is not a big fan of you being stressed out, overworked, or overwhelmed. Managing stress is important if you want to be able to come up with those effortless “aha!” ideas.

Imagine that you’re under a strict work deadline. Your anxiety is compounded by the fact that you’re worried about losing your job and that your entire family relies on your income. This is an incredible amount of pressure that makes it tough for your unconscious mind to break through with that effortless creativity.

Think back to the video where the person in the gorilla suit sneaks through all the people passing the ball around. Most people are so focused on the task at hand that they don’t see the most interesting part of the video. Stress and pressure can lead to a kind of tunnel vision that works the same way. Our attention becomes so narrowly focused that we aren’t able to zoom out and connect the dots between broader patterns and ideas.

That’s why it’s crucial to find ways to manage stress. I recently spoke with humor engineer Drew Tarvin who explained the 4 R’s of managing stress.[2]

First, try to reduce stress by eliminating stressors from your life. This might mean finding a less stressful job or leaving earlier for work.


Next, reframe the stresses that you can’t eliminate. Reframing isn’t pretending that your stress doesn’t exist; it’s trying to think differently and change your perspective about stressors that do exist. This might mean looking at the bright side or trying to see the bigger picture. If I don’t want to quit my stressful job, I can try to reframe by thinking more about the money I make or the times I feel fulfilled at work.

The third step is to relieve stress. This means finding ways to relax throughout the day. You might try meditating or watching funny cat videos on YouTube to clear your head and relieve your stress.

Finally, refresh. Find ways to take more extensive breaks where you completely de-stress. Pre-COVID, this might have meant taking a vacation to a beach somewhere. But now, you’ll have to get more creative as you find ways to put your phone down, forget about work, and come back completely refreshed.

2. Take Breaks

Part of stress management is taking breaks. But taking breaks is also an important part of tapping into your unconscious mind.

When I’m trying to figure out how to structure an article or put together ideas for a larger project, I schedule in time to completely put the project down. This allows my unconscious mind the freedom to come up with some truly novel solutions, and unlike conscious thought, it feels effortless.

This is that experience of the light bulb suddenly going on while you’re showering or driving to work. When you aren’t focused on anything in particular, your unconscious mind has the quiet it needs to bubble up to become conscious thought.

So, take breaks. One strategy is what’s called the Pomodoro Technique, which is when you stop to take a five-minute break after every 25 minutes of work. This allows you to recharge. Plus, by systematically easing your intense focus, you are giving your unconscious mind opportunities to come up with some truly novel ideas.


3. Get Creative

The unconscious mind is great at effortlessly seeing patterns and finding interesting solutions, but for this to happen, it needs some inspiration. That means creating and consuming as much creativity as you can.

Pick up an artistic or creative hobby. Paint, write, build, or dance. It’s also helpful to consume creativity. Go to museums, read poetry, and walk in nature. Taking in creativity with your conscious mind will give your unconscious mind all the inspiration it needs to be able to do its thing.

4. Don’t Force It

The most crucial takeaway about the unconscious mind is that you can’t force it. You can struggle and strain all you want when you’re using your conscious mind, but the unconscious mind can only bubble to the surface when you aren’t trying so hard.

Think back to that phenomenon of having an aha moment while you’re showering or walking your dog. The unconscious mind is better able to break through when you aren’t focused so intensely on whatever it is you’re trying to solve.

So, relax and give yourself some time and space. That’s when your unconscious mind is most likely to breakthrough.

5. Play

Finally, don’t forget about the power of play. Play is inherently fun, and a playful mode of thinking allows your unconscious mind more of a chance to innovate. If you turn your task into a game, you’ll be more relaxed, have more fun, and collaborate better with your colleagues. That means you’ll be more likely to riff and get to a more creative “unconscious mind” solution.

You can also add play throughout your day to tap into this freer, less constrained kind of thinking. Turn your commute into a game, play hide and seek with your children, or join a local bowling league. This will help you get reacquainted with your childlike sense of joy, wonder, and curiosity—all key ingredients to nurturing and fostering your unconscious mind.

Final Thoughts

Dealing with and utilizing your unconscious mind is very different from doing so with your conscious mind. Tapping your unconscious mind is a technique that, when done right, can help you get what you want by untapping your potential.

Featured photo credit: Katerina Jerabkova via


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