How Do We Remember and Why Do We Forget?

How Do We Remember and Why Do We Forget?

All thought is a feat of association: having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew. —Robert Frost

Why do so many of us forget where we put our car keys, eyeglasses, or cellphones? Because putting these objects down is the most ordinary of occurrences, part and parcel of the most humdrum aspects of our lives. (According to Readers Digest, the average adult spends 16 hours a year searching for misplaced keys.) We have trouble remembering anything to which we are simply not paying attention. We won’t remember a phone number spoken to us if we are already picturing our first date with the person.

You can’t transform anything—a date, face, name, or fact—into something memorable without at least a modicum of concentration. I could make the case that an awful lot of what we claim to have “forgotten” we simply never knew in the first place; we never paid attention to it. That explains the perennially misplaced glasses, keys, and purses and the hollow-eyed walk around the parking lot trying to remember where we left our car. What we have labeled “absentmindedness” is, in many ways, just a function of inattention.

Our Brains Are Still Mysterious

As I sat down to write this chapter, there was a serendipitous scientific paper that announced, according to the New York Times, a “spectacular new map of the brain, detailing nearly 100 previously unknown regions.” Since the “known” regions numbered only 83, that would indicate to me how very little we actually know about our brains. Scientists noted that it may take decades to actually uncover each region’s functions.

We know so little about our own brains so it should come as little surprise that we know even less about “memory.” Others have used similes and metaphors to explain it: The brain is like a muscle. Exercising it makes it stronger. Memory is like the ROM and RAM of a computer or a big filing cabinet or a large library with endless rows of “memory shelves.” Well…no.

As far as we know, there is no single area of the brain—no structure—that houses “memory,” nor any group of regions or areas in which different categories of memory are stored. Indeed, the same memory—or different aspects of it—may exist in many areas of the brain, perhaps in different forms. It has been hypothesized that a memory you want to retrieve may have to be “reassembled” from its various pieces, which may help explain why at different times or in different circumstances we actually “remember” things differently, too.

How does memory actually work? How and why do we remember some things and forget others? Are they forgotten or just “misplaced”?

Short-and Long-term Memory

Let’s talk about what we do know. There are two primary kinds of memory: short-term and long-term. When we talk about “improving our memory” we are really talking about the latter.

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Short-term memory has both a limited capacity and a limited duration. Like a Microsoft Word notepad, what’s there stays for a little while and then disappears (or, more likely, is simply overwritten). It is remarkably easy to disrupt—we have all gotten up and gone into the next room, then forgotten why. If we have paid attention at all, retrieval is not really a problem—there isn’t that much data there to retrieve. It is merely a way station. At many points during our day, we make the decision of what parts of it to “transfer” to long-term memory and which to discard.

Long-term memory is that vast storage depot (but don’t think of it as a physical “place”) with, according to some scientists, a limitless (or at least darned big) capacity. A February 2016 article in Scientific American declared that our brains have a capacity of 2.5 petabytes (that’s 2,500,000,000,000,000), the rough equivalent of 20 million four-drawer file cabinets or half a trillion pages of text. As I said, maybe not limitless, but darned big!

Retention is the process by which we store all those bits and bytes of facts, figures, names, faces, experiences, and so much more in long-term memory. Subject to other actions of the mind, what is retained can be recalled when needed. If you think something is important, you will retain it more easily. So convincing yourself that you must retain (and recall) something increases your chances of adding it to your storehouse—your long-term memory bank.

Recall is the process by which we are able to retrieve those things that we have retained. Recall is subject to strengthening through the process of repetition. The dynamics of our ability to recall are affected by several factors:

* We most easily recall those things that are of interest to us.

* Be selective in determining how much you need to recall. All information is not of equal importance; focus your attention on being able to recall the most important pieces of information.

* Associating new information with what you already know will make it easier to recall.

* Repeat, either aloud or in your mind, what you want to remember. Find new ways to say those things that you want to recall.

* Use the new data you have managed to recall in a meaningful way—it will help you recall it the next time.

Recognition is the ability to see new material and recognize it for what it is and what it means. Familiarity is the key aspect of recognition. You will feel that you have “met” this information before, associate it with other data or circumstances, and then recall the framework in which it logically fits.

Memories may well be available—you know you know something, it is right there on the “tip of your tongue”—but not easily retrievable. We have all remembered part of what we need to know—a face but not a name, a first name but not a last, a historical date but not the person or event associated with it—and struggled to remember the rest. I have frequently been stumped by a crossword puzzle, put it down, returned to it hours later, and immediately recalled what eluded me before.

Failure to recognize someone or something may be a problem with context. We often associate particular people with the places we know them from. Have you ever been unable to “place” the “familiar” face of a woman picking up her kids from school, only to later realize it was the barista who has been making your coffee every morning…for months? Because you associated her exclusively with one place, you had difficulty recognizing her in another.

Make Mine Memorable

What do all “memorable” names, dates, places, and events have in common? The fact that they are different. What makes something memorable is how much it differs from our normal experiences (its extraordinariness), which helps our brain distinguish between what we specifically want to remember from the vast, distracting wasteland of similar or competing information we see and hear every day.

So how can some people so easily recite the names, symbols, and atomic weights of the elements of the periodic table—while they’re playing (and winning) Trivial Pursuit? Because this information has gotten “tagged” or “coded” in some way. For some people, myriad bits of data are almost automatically tagged so that they can be quite easily and handily stored and retrieved. But if most of us are to have exceptional memories, we must make a special effort and learn the techniques that simplify such “tagging.”

Three Kinds Of Memory

The three kinds of memory are visual, verbal, and kinesthetic, each of which can be strong or weak, and only the first two of which are associated with your brain. This is, of course, a gross simplification of what we term “memory.” Surveys have found more than a hundred different memory tasks in everyday life that can cause people problems, each of which requires a different strategy. (Sorry to break it to you, but just because you’ve learned an easy way to remember a 100-digit number [see Chapters 8 and 9] does not guarantee that you won’t spend your days looking for those darned glasses.) Some have posited that visual and verbal memories may work very differently and even work at different speeds. Most studies show that visual memory exceeds word memory.

To strengthen our verbal memories, we use rhymes, songs, letter substitutions, and other mnemonic gimmicks. But most people have the easiest time strengthening their visual memories, which is why so many memory techniques involve forming “mental pictures.” See for yourself: Put together two lists—one of a dozen words, the others of a dozen pictures or photographs. Study each for five minutes. Three days from now, try to replicate both lists. I will bet that you remember far more pictures than words.

In addition to these two kinds of memory with which we are all familiar, there is a third kind: kinesthetic memory, or what your body remembers. Athletes and dancers certainly don’t have to be convinced that their muscles, joints, and tendons seem to have their own memories. Neither does anyone who has ever remembered a phone number by moving his fingers and “remembering” how to dial it.

And you never know when, like Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past, the mere taste (or smell, sight, sound, or touch) of something from long ago will conjure up a cascade of “forgotten” impressions. “Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, is trying to follow it into my conscious mind,” as he remembered the garden, house, church, town square, streets, and country roads of his childhood, all triggered by the taste of a tea-soaked cookie.

Why We Forget

As you think about the elements of developing good memory, you can use them to address why you forget. The root of poor memory is usually found in one of these areas:

* We fail to make the material meaningful.

* We fail to grasp what is to be remembered.

* We do not have the desire to remember.

* .We fail to associate what we want to remember to something we already know.

* We fail to make our verbal or visual “tags” vivid, unusual, even bizarre or lewd and, therefore, memorable.

* We do not use the knowledge we have gained.

The essence of memory is the ability to get in touch with some fact or sensation as if it had just happened. Developing a skilled or practiced memory is to keep facts, formulas, experiences, numbers, names, faces, and more at your disposal so you can recall them whenever you need or want to.

Your imagination and creativity are the basis for every memory technique you will learn. Randomness must be given structure, the meaningless made meaningful, the easily forgettable made memorable.

©2017 by Ron Fry. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, The Career Press.
1-800-CAREER-1 or (201) 848-0310.

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Master Your Memory: From America's Top Expert on Study Skills by Ron Fry.Master Your Memory: From America's Top Expert on Study Skills
by Ron Fry.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book.

About the Author

Ron FryRon Fry is a nationally known proponent for the improvement of public education and an advocate for parents and students, playing an active role in strengthening personal education programs. In addition to being the author of the best-selling How to Study series, which has sold more than 3,000,000 copies to date, Fry has written more than 30 other books in the areas of education and careers. He is the founder and president of Career Press, an internationally known independent publisher of trade nonfiction books.


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