“Memory: It’s all good!”

Memories Sticks
Memories Sticks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“’Tis the season” …to curse our memories, that is! For many, it’s “finals” where students’ memories are repeatedly tested. For others, it’s the holidays, where we need to remember who likes what, who we sent cards to last year, and who we need to (re)connect with. Indeed, whether student or not, when we get together with our friends, family, and colleagues for holiday celebrations, our memories are put to the test too: names, faces, facts, preferences, “remember whens….”. ‘Tis the season, indeed — the season to fear making memory errors that may cost us, whether the cost be in terms of grades or in terms of “face.”

Rather than encouraging readers to focus on the bad though, my intent with this post is to help you focus on the good! That is, your memory is really quite good, it’s just that you often don’t know what “good” means. In the list below I aim to explain a bit about what memory is (that’s the aim of the first point, and I apologize in advance for it’s length – I  teach entire classes on this, so boiling it down to a few paragraphs really is short, from that perspective) and then to dispel a few myths (note that the first point is informational, the others are more “how-to-ish”). In so doing, I aim to help you become a more confident memory user, just in time for the season when all our memories are challenged.

1. Memory is a verb, not a noun.

Given the way we use memory, it’s no wonder that we tend to think of it as a thing. When we talk about it, we tend to categorize and evaluate it (indeed, I just called it an “it”) as if it is a static entity or something that can be directly viewed with the right kind of technological lens. The fact that memory is often outlined in introductory college texts as a list of “kinds” (i.e., semantic memory, episodic memory, working memory) doesn’t help matters. When such lists are taken too literally (or too generally), the illusion that a memory is something you can store in a neat and tidy little box, forever preserved it in its original form, untouched by time or later experience perpetuates. Because I know better (about memory, that is) and because I also know that it is easy for students to only partially engage and take away the wrong message (ah, motivation), I do my best avoid such a trap and use the term “memory systems” instead of “memory kinds” Though it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, the addition of the word “system” makes a big difference.

The addition of the word system highlights the fact that memory is a process. As discussed in an earlier post (Labels on the brain), you experience “a memory” when a particular set of neurons – spread out across the cortex of your brain (i.e., the outer layer) – responds to a signal causing each neuron in the set to “fire,” one cell after another, like a string of dominoes, but one that rights itself back up and falls down again over and over. The descriptive term for this is “spreading activation.” The particular neural cells involved in the spreading activation process that yields memorial experience are the same kinds of cells that “fired” when the original experience happened. Said more simply, the process of memory involves the reinstatement of an actual perceptual experience– one you’ve had before. But because the present (i.e., the time in which the memory occurs) is always different from the past, the exact set of neurons firing differs, because you are attentive to the present as you think about the past.

There are different ways that we connect present and past together, and that’s where the “kinds of systems” come into play. The highest level (with a hierarchical structure in mind) is the “Working Memory System.” This system reflects the coordination of your attentional focus on the present and how what you are currently experiencing relates to what you already know. The stuff you already know is maintained by a different system though, one that is often called the “Declarative System.” The Declarative system relies on language and visual perception – it’s what allows you to “see in your mind’s eye” as you talk about your past. We additionally have a system called the “Procedural System” that regulates motor skills, movement, and the like. Back to the Declarative System – it can yield at least two different kinds of memorial experiences, one dubbed Semantic, the other Episodic. The Semantic system maintains all your knowledge about the world whereas the Episodic system maintains your personal memories of past experiences. Note that these two things – knowledge and experience – overlap. What differs between semantic and episodic remembering is the mental frame or purpose. When semantic processing occurs, lists of facts occupy your mind. When episodic processing occurs, your mind’s eye turns into a television screen, but with the added experience of potentially “smelling the smells” feeling the temperature and the emotion, and so on. Episodic remembering is reliving, and has been described as “mental time travel” (for a fun take on the time travel element, check out this post, written by none other than the professor who first taught me about the beauty and imperfection of memory processing).

Because of the way our brains work, memories are like snowflakes – no two are alike. Each and every time you reflect on an experience your memory for that experience differs. But it usually “feels” the same because it’s you doing the remembering, after all, and the core story remains relatively untouched by time. It’s the pesky details that tend to change with time and retellings. In most walks of life, this imperfection doesn’t much matter – in fact, imperfections make us more “human” and more likable. The only time the imperfection of the system can potentially get you into trouble is “exam time” or if you find yourself in the position of having to give an eyewitness account of an experience or crime. Given the rich and varied experiences we have over the course of our lives though, these two scenarios are quite rare.

2. Your memory IS good; what’s wrong with your memory is your definition of “good.”

Though imperfection is the name of the game when it comes to remembering pesky details, for some reason we often hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. Folks seem to think that other people’s memories are as accurate as video recordings and it is just theirs that is faulty. It never fails – whenever I mention to someone that I study and teach classes on memory, I hear something to the effect of: “Oh, you should study me! My memory is terrible…why just the other day I …”. My pat response is to smile, nod, and then tell them that they are normal. Sometimes folks take offense to my dismissal, other times they show relief, but I digress.

My point here is that our memory system isn’t built for perfection, nor for accuracy. So holding ourselves to such standards is a recipe for self-loathing and you should all just stop doing it. Unless you’ve experienced a traumatic brain injury, encephalitis, or something of the sort, I expect that your memory is good – quite good. What does “good” mean here? Here’s a list of things that our memory systems enable us to do, with very little thought, in fact:

a. Self-Definition. Can you describe yourself to someone who doesn’t know you? Can you share stories about your past with new friends? Can you reminisce about shared experiences with friends & family?

Yes, you can? Then your memory is good.

b. Knowledge.  Do you know the difference between cats & dogs? Liquids & solids? Planets & moons? Night & day? Do you know what stores are in your local mall, what brands you prefer to buy when grocery shopping, what kind of gas to put in your car, the states or major regions that make up your country, the leader of your country, the composition of air and water, what to wear when it is cold vs. when it is warm, how to stay safe around the water, what to say to a baby, the difference between football and soccer….? Even if you only know most rather than all of these, then your memory is good! These kinds of facts just sink in because our brains are built to acquire and store such generalities.

Really, you should be amazed at what you do know, rather than dismayed by what you don’t.

c. Skills. Can you read? Can you drive a car, ride a bike, throw a ball, type on a computer, operate a coffee maker?

I bet you can do many of these things without much thought. You have your procedural memory to thank for that. It’s good – and it can get better and better with practice.

d. Planning. Can you think about what you need to do when you get home from work tonight? Or what you need to do over the weekend? Can you plan a meal? Plan a work-day? Plan a party?

Yes, you can? Great – your memory is good then! It’s built to help you coordinate yourself in time and place (back to the time-travel point). By thinking about what you’ve done you can prepare for what you will do in the future. You can be taught to do this better, but if your memory is normal, adults can do this without having to learn how.

Indeed, our memories serve many important functions, but exact replication is not on the list. If we memorized all aspects of our experience in minute detail, our minds would be so cluttered up with unconnected tidbits that we wouldn’t be able to go beyond our immediate experience. In other words, the imperfection we whine about is actually something we should celebrate.  If you couldn’t form a category by noting commonalities among objects, for example, you couldn’t engage in abstract thinking, creativity would be an impossibility, and life would be really, really boring.

3. You probably don’t have a photographic memory. And really, you probably don’t want one, either.

Students often pine for a photographic memory – wouldn’t it be great if you could just see something once and Bam! It’s logged in to your memory banks forever! No need to study at all. Yes, indeed, what a dreamy thought. But the reality is something else entirely. The first reality check is this: the photographic ability students pine for is a myth, plain and simple. There’s just no such thing.

Some researchers do study what they call “eidetic” memory, otherwise known as “photographic.” Someone with “eidetic” abilities has remarkably keen visual memory. On occasion I have students who claim that they have photographic memory because when they take tests, they can see in their mind’s eye the page in the text or the page in their notes where the prompted information was first encountered or recorded. That is not what eidetic memory is though. Rather, it is the ability to store a complex visual image in mind, manipulate it in mind, and then accurately discriminate between the original image and the manipulated one. No matter what an adult claims, the ability to do such things is exceedingly, exceedingly, rare. Interestingly, children are often better at such tasks than are adults. That’s unsurprising though, since children’s verbal skills are not fluent, they rely more on visualization when engaging their memory. Once you become a fluent reader and writer, your mental energies shift towards semantics and away from visual detail.

At this point, some readers might be saying, but wait. What about that woman (first reported as “AJ”) who was recently in news for her amazing photographic memory? If you don’t know her story, check it out here.

I won’t go into the details of her case because you can click over and read them yourselves. Rather, I will cut to the chase and say, even though she is an extreme outlier, she still doesn’t have the mythical photographic abilities students dream about. Rather, she most likely has a clinical anxiety disorder (called obsessive-compulsive disorder) and the symptoms of the disorder have led her to place extreme emphasis on episodic remembering – she’s taken a normal skill and super-sized it as a means of coping with her disorder. Believe me – you don’t want to be like her. Other folks in history who have been held up as examples of photographic memory have also been found to have disorders, for example, disorders like synesthesia, a complex sensory-perceptual a-typicality.

4. Mnemonics aren’t cure-all’s, despite what all the websites say.

I include this only because, despite what I’ve stated above about memory imperfections and the like, many of us do look for ways to improve our memories, and mnemonics are often advertised as memory cure-alls. As a rule of thumb, a cure-all never does what it purports to do. Our bodies and minds are too complex for a one-size-fits-all approach to wellness. But just because they aren’t cure-alls, doesn’t mean they are worthless. Rather, ‘tricks” like mnemonics work well in some cases, but not all. That is, if your task is to memorize a list of disconnected facts, mnemonics can indeed help you out. That’s because our minds are set up as natural categorizers – when information is connected it is much easier to store and retrieve in meaningful, minimal-effort ways. But when we can’t easily connect ideas or terms, then we need tricks. The “one-is-a-bun” technique, the “memory cottage” technique, and others like them can make the disparate stick.

However, these tricks do nothing for, for example, college students who need to learn theories and sets of studies that support (or contradict) them, or for a business executive who needs to memorize and deliver an important address to a boardroom full of stakeholders. When to-be-remembered information reflects a connected set of ideas, emphasizing the connections between ideas is what you need to do to remember it. Adding in meaningful visual details to the “speech” or “presentation” or “essay prompt” will do wonders as well, just so long as the imagery conceptually matches the semantics. So rather than spending money on mnemonic training seminars, you are better off following these rules of thumb instead:

a. When material is meaningless as a set, use a mnemonic. What mnemonics do, after all, is lend meaning to an otherwise “empty” set.

b. When material is conceptually linked use the concept as your tool. Combine meaning (“semantics”) with visual images. I call this “dual coding” (loosely borrowing a term coined in the 1970s). When studying, match concepts with images, making two “codes” in mind.

      • Connect the set with other, conceptually related material (called elaboration)
      • Organize the information based on a meaningful progression (called, simply, organization)

In either case, what the Rhyme and/or or Reason noted above does for you is give you something to hang the information on, in mind, so you can pick it back up again later. The better you connect the information when you study it – connect it with something you already know — the easier it will be for you to reactivate that set of neurons again in the future. They key is to think about what the retrieval conditions will be like, then study in such a way that you give yourself meaningful cues that will be of use later.

5. Highlighting doesn’t help your memory. And typing notes probably doesn’t help either.

The key point above is that meaning improves the reliability of your memory. As such, the simple act of highlighting does nothing more than make portions of your text book (or notes) yellow. The act of highlighting doesn’t change the memory process at all. Rather, it makes it easier for you notice that part of the text again in the future. If you don’t actually think about the passage you highlight though, then when you come across the yellow block in the future, you are unlikely to recall why you highlighted it.

You are much better off writing notes in a notebook than you are highlighting. Notice that I state “writing” rather than “typing” too. I chose that word deliberately. The reason I suggest writing, is that writing with a pen or pencil requires deliberate thought, and though it is a motor skill regulated by Procedural memory, when you are paraphrasing and shaping the words, you are actively using your semantic memory too, thus writing serves as a dual-coding exercise. Typing, on the other hand (ha, ha, no pun intended), is a skill that for most college students anyways, is automatic. It’s something you can do without deliberate thought, thus it is regulated primarily by Procedural memory.  You can type and think of other things. So if you are reading and typing your “notes” you are not processing the material as deeply as you would be if you were hand-writing them. In short, highlighting and typing are time-savers, but not memory-improvers. If your aim is recall, then stick with an old-fashioned pen or pencil.

In sum, I won’t test you on this knowledge, even though repeated testing does improve memory too (Ah, another tip for the students out there). But if you made it through this post you are guaranteed to become a more informed memory user and can now enter those imminent memory-challenging situations with some confidence. Practice won’t make perfect, but that’s not the point, after all.


  1. Reblogged this on My Mind Bursts and commented:
    How we learn and remember fascinates me. As we become increasingly capable of recording or having recorded so much that we see and do how much do we want or need? Our minds work to select, filter and store – what however if this is done for is by a device? Can the reality recorded by a device ever be our own?

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