Memory and Learning
–By Bob Gottfried, PhD
What is memory?
Memory can be defined as the process of storing, sorting and retrieving information. Margaret W. Matlin, a cognitive psychologist simplified the definition of memory by describing it as the “process of retaining information over time.”
Understanding the way memory works and why it sometimes doesn’t, is the first step in understanding how we can improve our memory capacity in order to learn more efficiently. This article seeks to explore many aspects of memory, including how it works, the different types of memory, how memory affects learning, why we forget things, and the effects that aging and stress have on memory.
How Does Memory Work?
While in the past this process was thought to be simple enough to be compared to a file cabinet of stored information, recent studies have revealed that creating and recalling memories is quite a complex process, and it involves many areas of the brain. Memory begins with perception. When you experience something, the hypothalamus and parts of the frontal lobe collect information. From there, your brain decides what perceived items are significant enough to be remembered and stores them effectively.
Your memory is actually made up entirely of electrical signals, all fired in a particular order by neurons, which constantly change. When the neurons are consistently fired in the same order, you will remember something much better. This is particularly true when working on memorizing something such as a piece of music. Repeated practices will make the music easier to play because the neurons remember the order. However, if you don’t practice for a while, the pathway is forgotten as well as the musical piece.
Different Types of Memory
There are a number of different types of memory, many of which work together to form memories.
Short-term memory. This is considered to be anything that has occurred very recently and is readily available for recall. People who have problems with short-term memory may not remember what they had for breakfast, but they may easily be able to remember their favorite elementary school teacher.
Working memory. This is a system that temporarily stores information necessary to perform different cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension.
Implicit memory. This is the ability to use your past experiences to unconsciously remember various things. A subset of this type of memory is procedural memory. Athletes and artists are said to have strong procedural memories as they are easily able to perform a number of different motor skills without having to consciously think about them.
Explicit or declarative memory. This is the ability to recall specific information about something, which usually involves some conscious effort. An example of this would be remembering when your best friend’s birthday is.
Episodic memory. This type of memory is what allows you to remember where you were, who you were with, and how you felt during specific events in your life. The most memorable of these events are the ones that are emotionally-charged.
How Does Memory Affect Learning?
While your eyes and ears may take in every single thing as you are learning, your brain will filter through what it believes to be most important. In regards to learning, that means that not every bit of information will be learned. Because not all information will be stored, it is important to take steps in order to be certain that you remember everything that you need to remember by working with the different types of memory, depending on what you are learning. It is also important to note that everyone learns differently. Some learn and remember best with visual input, others with audible input, and others have to be physically involved to remember something. Effective learning usually involves more than one sense, for instance, visual, auditory and kinesthetic. By seeing, hearing and when relevant touching (or it could be writing), the brain further cements data related to the topic learned.
Why Do We Forget Things?
As indicated earlier, memories are formed with the firing of certain paths in the brain. A disconnection or interruption in these neuropathways can cause you to forget something in the short term. The information may not have been stored properly in the first place, or else another memory or thought process is blocking your ability to pull up specific information.
Another reason that we forget things is that the brain is always changing. That means that the neuropathways actually change every time we recall a memory. Sometimes, this causes memories to change over time based on what we are thinking or feeling at the time of recalling that memory. If a certain memory is not accessed regularly, the pathways may change so much that the memory cannot be readily accessed.
What Effects Does Aging Have on Memory?
As we age, the connections that were once strong and vibrant begin to falter. There is also a natural shrinkage of the brain that occurs and a steady loss of brain cells in important parts of the brain. This process begins in your 20s and will continue throughout your life. The faltering of these brain cells can adversely affect short-term memory, as well as lessen the ability to bring up episodic memories or explicit memories. The good news is that while memory does decline over time, studies have shown that many people in their 70s perform equally as well as those in their 20s when it comes to various cognitive tests.
The Effect of Stress on Memory
Stress also plays a role in short-term memory loss. This is because things that cause stress in our life occupy a great deal of our brain and don’t allow much room for concentrating on processing and remembering things. Stress can block short-term memory by not allowing the brain to properly remember the received information in the first place. Long-term memories can also be blocked in a moment of stress, like not remembering your own phone number when you are extremely anxious.
Learning and applying sound stress management techniques can help in improving memory and learning.
Can memory be improved?
Absolutely, and at any age. There are numerous memory improvement exercises and games that can improve memory to a certain degree. One of the best memory enhancement programs to significantly enhance focus, attention and memory was developed at the ACEclinics in Toronto, Canada. While the program was developed mainly for individuals suffering from Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD, ADHD), Learning disabilities (LD), and head/brain injuries, it has been successfully used by ordinary individuals who just wanted to improve their memory capacity, in general. It is a scientific, innovative method that will dramatically improve the ability to remember names, to-do lists, numbers, abstract information both short and long term, as well as improve working memory – a cognitive capacity essential in processing information. The program works on improving both visual and auditory based memory processing. More information can be obtained here: www.ACEclinics.com
Understanding the way memory works is the first step to improving your memory and ability to recall information. Some factors involved in the process of storing and recalling information include age, drug or alcohol use, genetics, diet, sleep and exercise. By finding out what works best for you, you can begin to combat the things that have negatively affected your memory and work to improve it at any age.
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