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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

More by this author

Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition.

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Last Updated on November 5, 2019

How to Memorize a Speech the Smart Way

How to Memorize a Speech the Smart Way

Did you know that 75% of the population suffers from glossophobia? That scary sounding word is one of the most common phobia’s in the world, fear of public speaking.

I’ll bet even as you are reading this, you are getting nervous thinking about giving a speech.

I have got good news for you. In this article, I will share with you a step by step method on how to memorize a speech the smart way. Once you have this method down, your confidence in yourself to deliver a successful speech will increase substantially. Read on to feel well prepared the next time you have to memorize and deliver a speech.

Common Mistakes of Memorizing a Speech

Before we get to the actual process of how to memorize a speech the smart way, let’s look at the two most common mistakes many of us tend to make while preparing for a speech.

Complete Memorization

In an attempt to ensure they remember every detail, many people aim to completely memorize their speech. They practice it over and over until they have every single word burned into their brain.

In many ways, this is understandable because most of us are naturally frightened of having to give a speech. When the time comes, we want to be completely and totally prepared and not make any mistakes.

While this makes a lot of sense, it also comes with its own negative side. The downside to having your speech memorized word for word is that you sound like a robot when delivering the speech. You become so focused on remembering every single part that you lose the ability to inflect your speech to varying degrees, and free form the talk a bit when the situation warrants.

Lack of Preparation

The other side of the coin to complete memorization is people who don’t prepare enough. Because they don’t want to come off sounding like a robot, they decide they will mostly “wing it”.

Sometimes they will write a few main points down on a piece of paper to remind themselves. They figure once they get going, the details will somehow fill themselves in under the big talking points while they are doing the talking.

The problem is that unless this is a topic you know inside and out and have spoken on it many times, you’ll wind up missing key points. It’s almost a given that as soon as you are done with your speech, you’ll remember many things you should have brought up while talking.

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There’s a good balance to be had between over and under preparing. Let’s now look at how to memorize a speech the smart way.

How to Memorize a Speech (Step-by-Step Guide)

1. Write Out Your Speech

The first step in the process is to simply write out your speech.

Many people like to write out the entire speech. Other people are more inclined to write their speech outline style. Whichever way your brain works best is the way you should write your speech.

Personally, I like to break things down into the primary points I want to make, and then back up each major point with several details. Because my mind works this way, I tend to write out speeches, and articles for that matter, by doing an outline.

Once I have the outline completed, I will then fill in several bullet points to back up each big topic.

For instance, if I was going to give a speech on how to get in better shape my outline would look something like this:

Benefits of being in shape

  • Point #1
  • Point #2
  • Point #3

Exercise

  • Point #1
  • Point #2
  • Point #3

Diet

  • Point #1
  • Point #2
  • Point #3

Rest and hydration

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  • Point #1
  • Point #2
  • Point #3

ConclusionNo need for points here, just a few sentences wrapping things up.

As you might imagine, this step typically is the hardest because it’s not only the first step but it also involves the initial creation of the speech.

2. Rehearse Your Speech

Now that you’ve written your speech, or outline, it’s time to start saying it out loud. It’s completely fine to simply read what you’ve written line by line at this point. What you are working on doing is getting the outline and getting a feel for the speech.

If you’ve written the entire speech out, you’ll be editing it while you are rehearsing it. Many times as we say things out loud, we realize that what we wrote needs to be changed and altered. This is how we work towards having a well rounded and smooth speech. Feel free to change things as needed while you are rehearsing your speech.

If you are like me and you’ve written the outline, this is where some of the supporting bullet points will begin to come out. Normally, I will have written several bullet points under each main topic. But as I say it out loud, I will begin to fill in more and more details. I might scratch certain bullet points and add others. I might think of something new at this stage while I am listening to myself and want to add it.

The key to remember here is that you laying the foundation for your awesome speech. At this point, it’s a work in progress, you are getting the key pieces in place.

3. Memorize the Bigger Parts

As you are rehearsing your speech, you want to focus on memorizing the bigger parts, or the main points.

Going back to my example of how to get in better shape, I’d want to ensure I have memorized my primary points. These include the benefits of being in shape, exercise, diet, rest and hydration, and the conclusion. These are the main points I want to make and I will then fill in further details. I’ve got to ensure I know these very well first and foremost.

By practicing your major points, you are building the framework for your speech. After you have this solid outline in place, you’ll continue by adding in the details to round things out.

4. Fill In the Details

Now that you have the big chunks memorized, it’s time to work on memorizing the details. These detail points will provide support and context for your major points. You can work on this all at once or break it down to the details that support each major point.

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For example, the details I might have under the “exercise” big point might include such things as cardio, weights, how many times a week to exercise, how long to actually exercise, and several examples of actual exercises. In this example, I have 5 detail points to memorize to support my major point of “exercise”.

It’s a good idea to test yourself regularly as you are rehearsing your speech. Ask yourself:

What are the 5 detail points I want to talk about that support my 3rd main point?

You need to be able to fire those off quickly. Until you can do this, you won’t be able to associate each of the details with the main point.

You have to be able to have them grouped together in your mind so that it comes out naturally in your speech. So that when you think of main point #2, you automatically think of the 4 supporting details associated with it.

Keep working at this stage until you can run through your speech completely several times and remember all of your big points and the supporting details.

Once you can do that with relative ease, it will be time for the final step, working on your delivery.

5. Work on Your Delivery

You’ve got the bulk of the work done now. You’ve written your speech and rehearsed enough times to have not only your main points memorized but also your supporting details. In short, you should have your speech almost done.

There’s one more step in how to memorize a speech the smart way. The final component is to work on how you deliver your speech.

For the most part, you can go give your speech now. After all, you have it memorized. If you want to ensure you do it right, you’ll want to hone how you are delivering your speech.

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You work on your delivery by rehearsing and running through it a number of times and making tweaks along the way. These tweaks or changes may be are’s where you’d want to pause for effect.

If you’ve found you have used one word 5 times in one paragraph, you might want to swap it out for a similar word a few times to keep it fresh.

Sometimes while working on this part, I’ve thought of a great story that’s happened to me that I can incorporate to make my point even better.

When you work on your delivery, you are basically giving your speech a personality as well.

The Bottom Line

And there you have it, a step by step approach on how to memorize a speech the smart way.

The next time you are asked to give a speech don’t let glossophobia rear its familiar head. Instead, remember this easy to use guide to help craft a powerful speech.

Using the method shown here will help you deliver your next speech with increased confidence.

More About Public Speaking

Featured photo credit: Anna Sullivan via unsplash.com

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