Memory serves human beings in many complex ways. It enables us to process our environment. Improve behavior. Give context to our lives. Studies of this psychological phenomenon reveal that memory occurs in stages, which gives us valuable insight into the inner workings of the brain.
The Phenomenon of Memory
Brian Becker, associate professor of neuropsychology at Lesley University, defines memory as “the process in which the mind interprets, stores, and retrieves information.” When you obtain information from the world around you, Becker explains, that material is kept in the brain as a mental representation and made retrievable for future use. A number of factors impact the way the brain retrieves a memory — if it’s recalled at all.
Stages of Memory Creation
The brain has three types of memory processes: sensory register, short-term memory, and long-term memory.
In the sensory register process, the brain obtains information from the environment. This activity is short, lasting at most a few seconds. During sensory register, the brain gathers information passively through visual and auditory cues, known respectively as “iconic” and “echoic” memory.
Becker gives the examples of a computer screen and a conversation to illustrate how to recognize sensory register. When you look at a computer screen and then look away, but can still see the screen’s image, this is iconic memory at play. Similarly, when you have conversations with others and ask them to repeat themselves, only to understand what they said a moment later, it demonstrates echoic memory.
In the memory-making process, attention is considered a stage between sensory register and short-term memory. Short-term memory formation can begin through giving your attention to the information received through sensory register.
According to Becker, short-term memory occurs in two parts: traditionally termed “short-term memory” and “working memory.” Short-term memory is when the brain stores information temporarily so that it can be repeated, such as remembering a phone number you see on TV. Working memory refers to the brain storing information for the purpose of manipulating it, such as remembering a set of numbers while working on a math problem.
When psychologists talk about improving memory, they most commonly focus on working memory because you have the most control over it and can actively improve it.
Many think of long-term memory as a permanent “bank” within the brain. Once a memory arrives there, the mind stores it completely and indefinitely. In truth, this is not the case. Although the long-term memory process allows information to remain in the brain for an extended period, nothing in the brain avoids risk. Information stored in long-term memory can stay in the brain for a short while (a day, a week) or last as long as a lifetime.
When long-term memories form, the hippocampus retrieves information from the working memory and begins to change the brain’s physical neural wiring. These new connections between neurons and synapses stay as long as they remain in use. Psychologists divide long-term memory into two length types: recent and remote.
Long-term memory can also be described by the nature of the memories themselves, according to The Guardian:
- You remember implicit memories automatically, like driving a car.
- You are aware you are actively trying to remember explicit memories. These can further be divided into:
- Episodic memories: Contain events that happen to an individual specifically.
- Semantic memories: Contain general knowledge.