How Memory Works: The Science of Memory

how memory works

How are memories formed in the brain? Our memory works in distinctive ways to take what we perceive and encode it in our brains. It’s the very framework we need to make sense of our day-to-day, take action and create better value from the time we invest in a task.

Unfortunately, memory is a tricky thing to master. While it may take you an entire day to memorize a chapter, you can forget that chapter in just minutes! In fact, studies have shown that in the 10 minutes it takes for you to grab your morning coffee, you have forgotten 42% of what you just did. If you’ve just left a meeting where you weren’t actively paying attention, that means you’ve effectively just missed a good chunk of the information you needed. Because your brain selectively stores information based on the importance you give it, you could be losing important information that you might need in hindsight and this is where inefficiency starts.

the science of memory 2

And it doesn’t stop there. Over the next few hours, you’re likely to forget 64% of the information you wanted to retain and by the end of the week, all you’re likely to remember is that you had a meeting and who attended it. This is the “Forgetting Curve”. Created by 19th Century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, the “Forgetting Curve” depicts your loss of crucial information if there is no attempt to retain it. Basically, what this means is that you very quickly lose your memory what you’ve learned within a week unless the information is consciously reviewed.

the forgetting curve

There are loads of articles on memory, how to remember things quickly and techniques, from simple methods like mnemonics to more intricate techniques like Learning Pyramid or Memory Palace. But perhaps the best place to start is to understand how memory and the art of forgetting works. We’ll also share some simple techniques you can use to improve your memory quickly.

What is memory?

Cognitive science has identified that memory works in a “dual-process”, where your subconscious memory interacts with your conscious to help you recall information quickly.

Your subconscious mind is involved in routine processes like breathing. Whereas your conscious memory handles problem-based processes. At each of these two levels, your brain is constantly encoding, storing, and recalling the information. Understanding this relationship is crucial to maximizing your ability to memorize and recall information because now you can leverage the two types to work for you!

the science of memory 4

Think back to the last time you learned a new skill. For example, the first time you made spaghetti, there was a component of conscious intention, concentration and analysis, whether it was about the color of the sauce, the amount of salt you put in or your pasta-to-cheese ratio. However, as your ability improves, this process stops being something you need to actively think about and becomes more intuitive. The phrase, “I could do it in my sleep” comes to mind.

What is forgetting?

Now imagine you’ve got a bucket full of water, but it’s got a couple of holes that leak out 90% of your water. Memory is the same. While you can collect and store information, if it’s not stored properly, you risk losing or being unable to recall the information, which is an inefficient process. There are several ways you could lose or miscode information, namely:

  • Memory Decay: When you learn something and don’t rehearse or revise it, memories decay or fade away.
  • Interference: Your old memories and information compete with the formation of new memories, thereby making it difficult to remember what is new and what isn’t.
  • Failure to store: Some information, for instance, unimportant details, never make it to your long term memory. These bits of information, like the chorus of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, you really don’t need to remember.
  • Memory Repression: Suppression of extremely disturbing or traumatic incidents is a defense-mechanism applied by the brain which results in a lack of clear memory of them.

How to Remember Things Quickly

So why is it that Billie Jean is now playing in your head? It’s because you don’t just remember songs, you use a host of other indicators like where you were, what you were doing, how you felt and even what you were smelling to recall the song. These different components come together to help you form a stronger memory and increases your chances of remembering the event.

The good news is that there are many methods, techniques and tools that you can use to help you retain information.

  • Take a snooze: REM sleep is important is because your brain moves information from short-term memory in the hippocampus to long-term memory in the cortex during this stage.
  • Something new: Learning new things in a creative manner or in unfamiliar circumstances will help you remember things quickly because it triggers additional activity in the hippocampus.
  • Stress or Danger: You tend to remember stressful events because of the impact it makes. Therefore, such events can be recalled faster as they are “flashbulb memories”; they hold a prominent place in the memory bank. That’s why your last-minute cram session can actually be beneficial.
  • Spaced Repetition: This is the best method to help you remember things quickly. Every time you reinforce the training, the rate of decline reduces.

The Spacing Effect

It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

The most important skill you can take up today is how to learn, even if this means you need to unlearn something. Learning how to learn is a principle under the “work smarter, not harder” tactic to anything you start in life. Your time is precious, and no one wants to waste it on something which will just be forgotten. What we want to do is drive more value from the time we invest.

We are better able to recall information and concepts if we learn them over several, frequent sessions. You can learn almost anything using this method!

Spaced repetition might not work if you have to recite a 100-page list tomorrow but the information learned via this method tends to be effectively retained over a long time.

The spacing effect of memory retention

The reminders need not be repetitive as different techniques can work better at retaining information, although this can differ for different people as well:

  • Teach someone else immediately: 90% retained
  • Practice what you’ve learned: 75% retained
  • Engage in a group discussion: 50% retained
  • Demonstrations: 30% retained
  • Audio-visual cues: 20% retained
  • Reading: 10% retained
  • Lectures: 5% retained

‍The Bottom Line

In conclusion, the best memory techniques encapsulate a few basic principles like frequent repetition, leveraging subconscious memory to improve conscious memory and using different modes of repetition. Thereafter, try to test your memory and review every 3-5 days.