How Does Memory Work And How Can We Improve It?

Our memory is an ingenious machine. We make all our decisions based on memory alone. What even are we without memory? Memory defines us. That should make us want to look after and protect our memory as best as we can.

Our overall memory is busy all the time by encoding and storing what we see, hear and read and then retrieves this information when we need it. These processes are rather complex. Our working memory – or short-term memory – stores material that is needed for short periods and is our workspace for all sorts of mental computations. The working memory holds information and – if attention is paid to the information - encodes it before transfer to the long-term memory. Information in the short-term memory is readily accessible and used to make instant decisions and carry out tasks.

Working memory & long-term memory

Our working memory, contrary to what we think, can hold only a limited amount of information (only about 7 units at a time) and input fades quickly if not solidified. The ‘going in one ear and out the other’ is what happens a lot. Forgetting someone’s name the second they have introduced themselves? If the name is not ‘selected’ and encoded, we will totally forget it. So, if we - for that split second - really listen to the name and ‘present’ it for encoding, we will be able to retrieve it in the future. It is said that ‘memory lapses are really just lapses in attention’. An uncomfortable truth?

In order to avoid overload in working memory, memories are transferred to the long-term memory, which is a store with infinite capacity, holding both facts & knowledge as well as skills. When people say that we never forget how to ride a bike or how to kick a football, this is very true, because the skill is embedded in the long-term memory and we can get it back when needed without any trouble. The transfer of information from short to long-term memory is (only) done via conscious rehearsal and repetition, to solidify and store this information for ready retrieval at our fingertips.

Increasing working memory capacity

As memory processes in the brain are biological, we can definitely help to improve our own memory. The key to a large and effective long-term memory store is to ‘feed’ it with a steady flow of retained (solidified) information from the working memory. The working memory in turn can be boosted and expanded by ‘chunking’ information in the restrictive 7 units the memory can hold. Chunking means that information is categorised and contextualised in, well, chunks to be easier to remember. We do this by breaking up information in smaller parts, as we do for example with telephone numbers, and by using mnenomics that serve a memory bridges.

Successful transfer

The moment we categorise information to encode it in our working memory, we are already halfway to consolidating it. And for this information to then become a long-term memory, we need to rehearse and repeat it for the transfer to be successful. Once information is in the long-term memory it is there, it can’t get lost. It is there to be retrieved. However, there can be (in people with normal brain function) emotional factors, such as stress & anxiety, that directly interfere with the information retrieval. If we go ‘blank’ at an exam, but prepared for it well, we are actively blocking the access to this information we studied, repeated and rehearses and committed safely to long- term memory due to our own stress and anxiety.

The more effective and efficient the transfer to long term memory is, the more space there will open up for new input in the working memory, which consequently is making us better at doing things like maths and geometry and improves executive functions such as decision making.

Boosting memory

So, how can we aid this biological process and prevent what hinders chunking and possible long-term memory transfer? We can help by simply eating good stuff, such as a.o avocado, bananas, dark chocolate, oily fish, berries, nuts & seeds, coffee (hello Starbucks) as well as broccoli and kale. Another thing is for us to never underestimate the importance of sleep. Between cramming an extra hour late at night or sleep, the choice will have to be sleep (and not leaving it to the last-minute next time) as the consolidation and transfer of well-rehearsed information to the long-term memory takes place during sleep. And the opposite is true too. Sleep deprivation leads to loss of focus and attention, making it harder to receive information, let alone encode it.

Luckily, memory can improve further by being an active learner and by focus, meaning single-minded, undistracted learning. This seems so obvious, but it is underrated. The more we store, the better we get at chunking information in the 7 units of the short-term memory and hence deepening it, making transfer to the long-term memory more plentiful and rich. Anything we learn gets stored and new meaningful connections are made with additional information flowing in; this is our aha moment, the moment when we suddenly ‘get’ it. When these new neural connections are made to give meaning to separate memories, we are in effect enhancing our cognitive abilities, also called learning.

In conclusion, there is no ‘us’ without memory, making memory the very essence of Self. That is worth very precious caretaking indeed.

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