Understanding Memory

John Cousins
March 6, 2023
4 min read
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

One way to model and understand memory is to split it into two major memory systems: long-term and working memory (also known as short-term memory). These two systems are related, as you’ll often bring something from your long-term memory into your working memory so that you can actively think about it, especially in tandem with other, perhaps newer, ideas.

Your long-term memory is akin to a vast storage warehouse distributed across the brain, with different sorts of long-term memories stored in various regions. As a result, long-term memory can store billions of items. Research shows that to increase the chance of storing and securing an item of information in your long-term memory, you need to revisit it at least a few times. Practicing and reviewing of information is critical because too many items can be stored here and can start to bury or obscure one another.

On the other hand, your working memory is akin to a blackboard, necessitating repetition of what you’re trying to work with so that it stays in place on the blackboard. You’ll perhaps recognize this feeling from the times you’ve repeated a phone number to yourself until getting the chance to write it down. We repeat information to help counteract dissipative processes that cause memories to fade or disappear. The locus of working memory is in the prefrontal cortex located at the very front of the brain, immediately behind the forehead. In addition, it has connections to other regions of the brain to access long-term memories.

We use the working memory system to hold a few distinct ideas in mind to understand a concept or solve a problem. It’s the system involved in what you are immediately and consciously processing in your mind. However, the latest research suggests that our working memory can only hold about four information items or ‘chunks.’ Our tendency to group ideas and memories into so-called chunks makes our working memory feel more expansive than it actually is.

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Long-term memory stores fundamental concepts and techniques involved in whatever you are learning about, whereas working memory is deployed when you’re dealing with something new. Transitioning new information from your working memory to your long-term memory takes time and repeated practice. One way to assist this process is through a technique called spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition relies upon repeating something you want to retain in your long-term memory over a series of days. We now know that repeating something multiple times in one evening is significantly less effective than repeating that same something over several days. This phenomenon is another reason pulling all-nighters of cramming is ineffective. The spaced repetition technique allows the requisite neural and synaptic connections to form and strengthen, facilitating a solid knowledge structure. Practice makes permanent.

Neuroscience has demonstrated that the brain evolves as a result of experience.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Taxi drivers who have been transporting customers around London for many years possess larger hippocampi, a brain area critical for spatial awareness and memory, than newer cab drivers.

Similarly, accomplished musicians have larger grey matter volume in motor, auditory, and visual-spatial regions, implying that their brains have altered due to daily practice.

Photo by Michel Catalisano on Unsplash

When the brain is damaged, such as during a stroke, therapy can help to restore lost capacity. This capacity arises as a result of other brain areas taking over for those harmed.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt to new experiences. Exercise has a similar effect on the brain as it does on the body. This process can occur quickly: learning to juggle or play the piano changes brain density in a matter of days.

This plasticity is empowering news because it suggests that we aren’t stuck with our old brains and old habits. Instead, we can forge new paths, creating the flexibility to mold the future based on what we do now to train the mind.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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