What Is Memory Anyway?

It gets pretty interesting when you start to ask this question, “What is memory anyway?.” I think a lot of us think of it as recalling information, like for a test in school or work. It might be remembering names. Or it might be a focus question because we are scattered and not focused and then not remembering things because we are all over the place. But the explanations actually make sense, especially when you realize how individual our memory and learning styles are.

UC Berkeley, Psychology Today and Newsmax have some great information that I’ll condense into this article (references below). Part of this includes understanding the two types of memory, how they work and at the end, the ‘why’s and wherefores’ of how things might go awry and then how best to make it better within our new understanding of how we learn and file ‘information’.

Short Term and Long Term Memory

Short term memory is also known as working memory. UC Berkeley says to think of it as what we’re actively thinking about right now. Short term memory is generally stored for only a short period of time. I tend to think of this like RAM in your computer that empties when your computer is turned off or restarted. It’s just temporary. But in the brain, it can turn into long term memory with repetition over time.

Short term memory is primarily a function in the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex. It is usually sensory qualities of an experience – taste, see, do, hear or touch.

Long term memory can be broken down into two types: Semantic memory (facts) and episodic memory (specific events). Long term memory can store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely (Hrinchir, 2015). It’s like the hard drive on your computer. Pretty amazing. But for humans, it’s not the same as a computer to recall information. There are more factors involved than a physical space on a hard drive.

Long term memory is first stored in the hippocampus and then transferred to areas of the cerebral cortex involved in language and perception for permanent storage. It usually has to do with the meaning of an experience or semantic codes.

How We Learn, Retain and Retrieve

learning the piano

Encoding is the actual making of a memory. We categorize new memories in the context of previous experiences. It’s a filing system, so to speak, integrating new knowledge and memories in with the previous ones. It is retained depending on how deep the connections go and how often the memory or information is retrieved.

Taibbi (2014) says that encoding is helped by creating visual cues (assigning a visual image [remembering where you were when you heard of a major event in history]) or making up a song with facts to help them remember. Some people create an acronym out of items in a list to recall easier (pizza, oranges, and mustard could be POM). Maybe that’s why we use acronyms so much in the business world. 🙂

These are good methods for short term knowledge and may help ‘encrypt’ it to long term memory as we create associations in our brains to previous knowledge.

Recall, The Challenge

What most people have problems with is the recall part of the equation. UC Berkeley (2019) describes recall as a reconstruction process, not a playback. Each time the information is retrieved, it is re-recorded and encodes the memory further and makes it easier to retrieve it in the future.

It also helps to create cues when learning by various methods: visual, sound, music, acronyms, context. The more of these things present during an event or learning experience, the easier it is for the brain to encode it and them to remember it.

The UC Berkeley article also states that older people might have more trouble with recall because they’ve already created so many associations and competing memories. There are more and more connections and references in the elaborate filing system in their brains to sort through. It’s not a function problem so much as a quantity problem in healthy people. 🙂

Information Overload

The online world makes so much information available to us, we might feel we are in information overload. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “The more we learn, the more we learn”. The brain tends to file information away with similar information so by re-encoding previous information and adding to it, it reinforces what we already learned or experienced.

horse example for how we file memories
Learning how to care for a horse. Example of how we file information in our brains.

For example, let’s say you own a horse for the first time ever. You start learning about feed. You learn about when to groom. Then you have to learn about gear. And horseshoes. And what to look for in their health. As you learn about each facet of caring for a horse, each thing builds on the previous in that area of your brain related to owning a horse. While you’re learning new things, your brain is referencing back to the feed and basic care. It’s all building and reinforcing what you already learned.

It would be easy and probable you create visual cues for owning a horse. You are visualizing each thing and thinking back to other visual cues. Before long, you have a body of knowledge about owning a horse related to all the other aspects of horse care. Where the feed is, the stall, the grooming tools, your riding tack, the vet’s phone number. All now filed in the same area of your brain.

Where We Are Now…

So we’ve learned about the physical aspects of short and long term memory. We learned we should learn by various methods and maybe take part in how we encode information (switch up how we get information). We have some basic understanding of how it works.

With all of the information we want to access and remember, we want to optimize that and maybe cure some deficiencies that keep our brains from working as well as it could. Maybe we are worried about things going on physically that keep our brains from functioning properly.

The topics on this website allow you to research for yourself some things that can help optimize your brain function or even send you to the doctor to see if there is something else you should be looking into in your health.

I hope you find some benefit and help from all of this information!  Thank you for visiting. Please leave your comments and questions below. I’ll be happy to help you out!

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Hrenchir, T. 5 Differences between Short-Term and Long-Term Memory Loss. (2015). https://www.newsmax.com/fastfeatures/memory-differences-long-term-short-term/2015/03/23/id/631914/

Taibbi, C. How to Improve Your Memory, Instantly. Psychology Today. (2014). https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/gifted-ed-guru/201402/how-improve-your-memory-instantly

UC Berkeley, Center for Teaching & Learning. Memory and Recall.(2019). https://teaching.berkeley.edu/resources/learn/memory-and-recall

8 thoughts on “What Is Memory Anyway?”

  1. hey Paula :),

    This was a well written post on what is memory and not only did i understand it, i could visualise how it would actually work and how best to retain new information.

    I like the phase, “the more we learn, the more we learn”. It is amazing the power of our brains and would personally be adding visual/audio cues my learning processes now

  2. It’s amazing to understand how a brain works. In this topic, interestingly, I’ve learned about short and long term memories and there’s no such memory overload.

    But how is it that our brain has the time of forgetfulness? I thought it’s like the hard drive of a computer that when it’s full it will no longer accept whatever you want to put into. May I be clarified.

    Thank you very much.

    • Hi Abagatan. Thank you for your question and comments. Well the experts say that there really is no limit to how much our brains can store. The more we use it, the more connections it makes and the more capacity it has. Part of the forgetfulness, as I understand it, is that maybe we didn’t learn or make an effort to use visual or other methods to commit something to memory. There are other factors that contribute to our brains functioning at its best. I’ve tried to address some of those on this website. Feel free to look around!

      Thank you again for your question and comments. 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing specific terms and examples about memory. In one of our health seminars, the speaker once told us that we should have less sugar intake. In some research, sugar contributes to some chronic diseases including cognitive decline. As we get older, we should also provide ourselves with puzzles and memory games to practice our brains. One of the most important thing to do is to get enough sleep so we can retain information and perform better memory tasks. 

    I like how you stressed on mnemonics such as acronyms. I always do this during test reviews and even on grocery shopping like if I only have 5-7 items to buy. We really have to take care of our memories. It’s like a deposit and withdrawal of numerous informations we take everyday. 

    • Thank you for bringing up sugar. I’ll so some research and add an article if it makes sense to. :).  I agree with puzzles and games. I personally like puzzles and games a lot. I plan to add that to the categories here soon.

      I appreciate you reading and adding some additional information. Thank you!

  4. Hey there, interesting post here about memory. Also very well put together and informative site. Sometimes it is hard to remember so much overtime as we learn everyday. It reminds me when I was back in school, and I wasn’t really good in test and remembering school work for some classes. Maybe because it wasn’t interesting to me?

    And I’ve come across and met multiple people who seem to not remember certain things or events, maybe because it wasn’t of great interest to them? Or act a certain way in situations, maybe it’s because of a experience they had in the past? But I really want to understand why does it seem that we as human beings remember or focus more on the negatives than the positives of someone?

    • Thank you for your comment and question. 🙂
      I think it goes back to how our memories are ‘colored’ by previous experiences. Maybe not with that exact person but with people in general or the situation or the location or their family.. whatever their life experience is up to that point.


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