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Published on October 15, 2019

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 Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition.

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Last Updated on January 13, 2020

7 Simple Brain Training Habits to Boost Your Brain Power

7 Simple Brain Training Habits to Boost Your Brain Power

Throughout the ages, there have been many beliefs in various tricks to boosting brain power, yet when held up to scientific scrutiny, most of these beliefs don’t add up.

When I was a child, for example, my mother told me if I ate fish it would make me more intelligent. Of course, there’s no scientific proof this is true.

Today, there is a myriad of games you can download to your phone that claims to improve your brain’s cognitive skills. While we are still waiting for a conclusive scientific verdict on these, recent studies by neuroscientists at Western University in Ontario[1] and researchers from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia appear to contradict these claims.[2]

So, how can we really boost our brain power? Well, it turns out there are a number of simple things you can do that will improve the function of your brain. Here are seven to get you started.

1. Do Your Most Difficult Tasks in the Morning

Our brains work at their best when they are fresh and energized after a good night’s sleep.

If you have a task to do that requires a lot of thought and focus, the best time to do that task would be first thing in the morning when your brain is at its freshest.

This is one of the reasons why checking email first thing the morning is not a good idea. You are wasting your brain’s best hours on a simple task that can be done when your brain is not at its freshest

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Throughout the day, you will find the amount of time you can focus for will fall. Your decision-making abilities will also begin to weaken as the day progresses. This is called “decision fatigue” and that means the decisions you make later in the day will not be as good as the decisions you make earlier in the day.

It’s far better to do your most difficult, creative tasks early taking advantage of your brain’s higher energy levels.

Try to avoid meetings first thing in the morning and schedule work that needs higher creative energy and concentration.

2. Get Enough Breaks

Our brains are not very good at maintaining concentration and focus for much more than an hour. Once you go beyond a certain amount of time, doing focused work, you will find yourself making more and more mistakes. This is a sign your brain is tired and needs a break.

Taking the right kind of break is important. Switching from working on a complex spreadsheet to checking your social media feeds is not going to give your brain the right kind of break. Instead, get up from your desk and head outside. If that is not possible, go to the nearest window and look outside.

Your brain needs a break from the screen, not just the spreadsheet, so leave your phone behind so you are not tempted to look at it and just savour the view.

3. Read Books, not Social Media Feeds

There are no shortcuts to improved knowledge and you are certainly not going to improve your general knowledge about anything useful by reading social media feeds. Instead, make reading books a regular habit.

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When you read good quality books, you increase your ability to use the knowledge you learn to solve problems as your brain will apply the knowledge you learned to existing situations.

Learn about economic theory, history and psychology. All these topics have real practical applications for us all today.

4. Exercise Regularly

Humans did not evolve to be stationary animals. You need to move.

Had our ancestors spent their days sat around, they would not have survived very long. To survive and find food, our ancestors had to keep moving. Our brains have evolved to function at their best when we are exercised.

In his book, Brain Rules, Prof.John Medina explains when we exercise, we increase the amount of oxygen in our brains and this helps to sharpen our brain’s functions.

In studies, when a previously sedentary group of people began a light exercise programme, their cognitive skills improve as well as reaction times and quantitive skills.

This is why you are more likely to find the solution to a problem when you are walking somewhere or exercising rather than when you are sat at a desk in front of a screen.

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5. Get Enough of the Right Food

You probably have experienced the afternoon slump at some point in your life. This is when you feel tired and fatigued in the mid-afternoon. This is a result of the carbohydrates you ate at lunchtime, stimulating your body to produce insulin which then causes a drop in your blood sugar levels.

When you go into an afternoon slump, concentrating for long periods become almost impossible and you just want to curl up and go to sleep.

To prevent the afternoon slump, try to eat a protein-rich lunch such as a tuna or chicken salad without pasta, rice or bread. Keep some healthy snacks such as mixed nuts and dried bananas around your workspace and when you feel a little peckish, eat a few of these.

Not only will you avoid the afternoon slump, but you will also improve your overall general health and feel a lot more energetic.

6. Drink Enough Water

Your brain is made up of about 70% water, so without enough water, your brain will not function at its best.

When you are not drinking enough water, you will find your ability to concentrate, make decisions and stay alert will reduce. You will feel sleepy and lack energy. Your brain functions at its best when it is properly hydrated.

The solution is to keep a large bottle of water at your work station and sip regularly from it throughout the day. This will increase the number of trips you need to make to the bathroom which is a good thing. It will keep you moving and taking regular breaks from your screen.

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7. Don’t Deprive Yourself of Sleep

You probably don’t need a long scientific study to convince you that if you are not getting enough sleep, you are not going to function at your best.

You just need to go a couple of days without getting enough sleep and you feel your abilities reduce. Your decision-making skills become erratic, your energy levels drop and your ability to stay focused on your work diminishes.

If you want to improve your brain’s ability to function, then start with getting enough sleep. The number of hours you need will depend on your own circadian rhythms, so find what works best for you.

Six to eight hours is usually enough for most people so make sure you are hitting that number of hours per night as a minimum.

The Bottom Line

Improving our brain power is not difficult. All we need to do is develop a few simple habits such as exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and eating the right foods.

These seven tips will go a long way to helping you to become more alert, able to focus longer and make decisions. All simple common sense tricks anyone can use.

More to Boost Your Brain Power

Featured photo credit: Nicole Wolf via unsplash.com

Reference

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