OMG! I have such a terrible memory! I know I have seen that person before… but where? What is her name? I can’t remember… This is so embarrassing!!
How many times have you heard this? Has something similar happened to you? And I bet the opposite is also true. Have you recalled long gone exciting experiences in detail and just in a few seconds after running into an old flame while walking on the park?
We’ve all experience these awkward and exhilarating moments at one point or another. Sometimes we feel as if our memory was our best friend, while others it may feel like it’s betraying us.
This is why memory is considered one of the most fascinating and intriguing of the human functions… more powerful and capable than a computer, more flexible and much more durable for sure! And despite its unlimited capabilities is still one of the greatest human mysteries…
Let’s learn a bit about memory and how it works. There are basically three types of memory:
- Short Term Memory is at play most of the time, “taking notes” so to say, before deciding what to keep long term and what to discard. When we are reading a book, for instance, we must retain the general idea of the paragraph for it to make sense as we read the entire book.STM is limited to capturing chunks and bits of information. This is why it’s easier to retain short sentences of hyphenated phone numbers than long paragraphs or a long string of numbers. But STM is also unstable and highly distracted, meaning that interference can prevent us from recalling. One example is when we try to memorize a phone number and the phone rings. We get distracted and the chunk of information vanishes.
- Long Term Memory is the amount of information that we store over a long time, even for life. As far as we know, it has unlimited storage, as we can remember a multitude of things that have happened while we keep on increasing the amount of memories over time.
- Then, there is Sensory Memory. Some consider it as a separate type all by itself while others see it as a part of LTM. As the name implies, it is associated to our senses. We can remember something by touch (how does your favorite blanket feel?), visually (do you remember how a colorful butterfly looks like), auditory (have you listened to a song and instantly remembered an event?), taste (think of your favorite food… how does it taste?) and smell (that special scent brings up memories of a special person, doesn’t it?)
LTM subdivides into two categories… Declarative and Procedural.
Declarative Memory is responsible for storing facts which can be consciously recalled for discussion or “declaration.” Procedural Memory applies to the learning of skills, like driving a bike or tying one’s shoe laces. Active recall and repetition make these a part of LTM. DM also subdivides into Episodic and Semantic, which can function together or independently of each other.
- Episodic– is a sequential record of facts, events, times, places and emotions which allows us to reconstruct events in a step-by-step fashion. It is related to personal experience. It allows us to know what happened first and what came after in a certain episode in our lives.
- Semantic– is a conscious recollection of facts, things, skills, information and concepts that we have learned over the years. This is unrelated to personal experience. It gives meaning to concepts, provides understanding of the world around us. For instance, we can remember what a car looks like because we have learned what a car is and have retained that memory.
One of the most fascinating aspects of memory is that it doesn’t happen in just one structure of the human body but within a group of systems that allow us to recall several experiences of the past and even think of how these can affect the future all at the same time.
So why is it that we forget things?
First, let’s talk about the processes that make us remember. There are four main activities related to LTM:
Encoding, Storage, Retrieval, and Deletion.
- Encoding transforms a piece of information into something than can be stored. Just like a computer uses zeros and ones to store information, the human mind uses association, either with an existing past experience, a sound, a feeling, an idea, etc.
- Storage is holding on to the information and it is accomplished by rehearsal or continuous exposure to the stimuli. A physiological response needs to happen and the neuro-chemical change recorded for the information to be stored. Verbal coding plays an extremely important part too, meaning association of words related to a certain event. Research has shown that time and consistency aid in the retention and storage of information long-term.
- Retrieval means bringing the information out of storage for its use, like remembering how to do a specific task or knowing how to discuss a specific topic. Much of this can happen subconsciously; for instance, cleaning the house while thinking of something else, or driving to work on “automatic.”
- Deletion is better known as forgetting. However, it is not clear if we actually forget or if it becomes difficult to access certain bits of information. In other words, the information is there, stored in our brain but we can’t access it.
But before we go on, let me assure you that forgetting is not such a bad thing. Can you imagine what would happen if you were able to remember every single aspect, event, situation, day, hour, minute and second since you were born? It would be maddening for sure. Think about it!
Many factors have been associated with being forgetful, such as aging, trauma, and stress to name a few. If stress is affecting your life and your memory, you can greatly benefit from meditation and hypnosis which can relax your overactive mind overtime.
Another reason -physiological in nature- relates to STM which acts like a “filter.” Because of this, unimportant or trivial concepts never make it to our LTM.
Other times, much like cleaning your hard drive, our brain may just discard information that is no longer usable. Some scientists believe that we may be physiological programmed to forget certain things, much like a protection mechanism. An example of this is psychological amnesia that presents itself to prevent emotional pain.
It’s also important to mention that forgetting is not necessarily permanent. As we mentioned earlier, the information is most likely “there”, we just fail to retrieve it.
There are several ways in which we can improve our memory. One is through fun exercises called mnemonic techniques. Here is a list of the six Mnemonic* Exercises that I like and use regularly…
- Utilize visual images linked to concepts to help you memorize and remember. For instance, you can visualize a microphone image while talking to a man named Mike while associating his face with a microphone so you can later recall his name. When the association is funny, you’ll remember the information easier.
- Acronyms are initials that create words. An example is “CHON” an acronym that represents the four basic elements in living organisms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen)
- Rhyme and rhythm are also helpful. Organizing words that rhyme and adding a tune to your new poem to make it a song makes it easier to remember. One example is when young children memorize the letters of the alphabet to the tune or “Twinkle, twinkle, little star…”
- The Loci Method is an effective way to memorize big chunks of information, like a speech. It uses organization, visual memory and association. I used this method quite frequently when I was in College, and always got good grades! It works like this…Identify a common path that you walk, either at home, on the park or one that is familiar to you. Now identify landmarks that you pass when you walk on this path. Do it at first while reading your speech. Make a mental note of the landmark you are passing by and associate it with the part of your speech you are saying. Pretty soon, just visualizing your path and the landmarks you’ll be able to recall your speech!
- “Chunking”refers to memorizing chunks of information, such as a phone number. Research has found that we can retain between 5 and 9 digits in STM. This is why phone numbers have 7 digits… and you thought this was a random event!Now, chunking makes it easier to remember by breaking the string of digits into more manageable chunks or information. Try this… memorize this string of numbers = 5278493… now try it like this 527-84-93… which was easier? Chunking can be also used with words and sentences. Just get creative!
- The Keyword Technique is very helpful to learn foreign languages as well as to increase your vocabulary or learn the meaning of terms. For this technique is important to associate a word that you know the meaning of to the new word that you want to learn, and then add something funny to it.Let’s use two investment terms as an example. The Bear Market vs. the Bull Market. Picture the bear hibernating for at least six months of the year. The lazy bear goes “down to sleep” = Bear Market means the market is down. Picture now the bull… an aggressive creature that attacks full force with its horns = Bull Market means the market is going up.
Other important elements to strengthen and enhance your ability to process and recall information, are…
- Exercise. Regular physical activity increases the flow of oxygen to your brain and reduces the incidence of illnesses that could lead to memory loss, such as diabetes, cholesterol, and Alzheimer.
- Play. Playing strategy board games forces your brain to think creatively, making new neural connections… so, pull out your chess board or scrabble and have fun!
- Stress Management. When we are under stress it is more difficult to concentrate. When we are thinking of three things at the same time while leaving the car keys somewhere without paying attention… we won’t remember where we left the keys… More importantly, when cortisol – a stress hormone – is constantly present in the bloodstream, it can eventually damage the hippocampus.
- Sleep is needed for memory consolidation, as sleep deprivation, insomnia and apnea prevent you from getting proper rest making it more difficult to concentrate and remember when you are awake.
- Balanced Nutrition is essential for memory. Ingesting proper amounts of B complex (B6, B12 and folic acid) protects neurons (brain cells) from toxins. Remember to eat your broccoli! Antioxidants like Vitamins A, C and E fight free radicals which can damage cells, including neurons. Antioxidants also aid in the flow of oxygen to your brain and slow down the aging process in the whole body. So remember to eat carrots, tomatoes and oranges!Omega-3 fatty acids or “healthy fats” have been associated with cognitive function in the brain, thus helping you keep your memory healthy until old age. Among the best sources are salmon and tuna, as well as flaxseed oil.
It is my hope that the above information will point you to the right direction. Obviously, a discussion of proper nutrition goes beyond the scope of this website, so I suggest you research information about a balanced diet that will keep your body healthy and your brain functioning at peak performance for many years to come!
Now that you’ve learned the basics of memory, how it works, and some of the things you can do to improve it, I’d like to remind you that memory is like muscle… the more you use it the stronger it becomes.
There is a multitude of powerful ways to sharpen your memory, overcome forgetfulness, and easily retain information in your mind for immediate retrieval anytime you desire.
Best of all, many of the methods are simple, practical, and fun to learn!
Click here to learn how subliminal messages can help you improve your memory in just a few minutes per day…
*Mnemonics – Encarta Dictionary – a short rhyme, phrase or other mental technique for making information easier to memorize.