Have you ever stopped to wonder why the human brain can remember a camping trip from 15 years ago, but sometimes fails to store information obtained the previous day? Have you ever forgotten someone’s birthday, but somehow remember that kid in third grade that made fun of your glasses? How come the brain can remember information that’s decades old, but has trouble with short-term memory?
Memory is a process, and a very complex one at that. There are plenty of similarities between how memory works and how a computer stores information.
Through memory, the brain is capable of storing and recalling information through a three-step process which involves encoding (just like in computer science, encoding translates information into a language that our brain can understand), storage (just like a hard drive, our brain stores memories in a specific location), and retrieval (when need be, memories can be accessed).
However, unlike a computer, the memory retrieval process isn’t flawless, which is why we sometimes can’t remember things, or don’t always remember them exactly as they occurred. That’s why you sometimes forget to buy bread on the way home, but it also could be due to a medical condition that affects the memory, such as Alzheimer’s.
Here is where things start to get really interesting. As you probably know, people have short-term and long-term memories, but not everyone knows why this happens. The thing about short-term memory is that it allows the brain to store information that’s just important in the close future. In other words, short-term memory offers our brain sensory information that helps us understand more about our surrounding environment.
The duration of short-term memories is about half a minute maximum, and it’s all about information that we need to focus on right now.
Long-term memory lasts for an indefinite period of time, sometimes over decades. Even if these memories are stored close to our momentary awareness, we don’t always access them when we need to.
So, how do we use our memory? Once again, it’s easier to explain by using a computer analogy. Whenever you store information on your hard drive, you can search for it and retrieve it as you need. With memory, the process is pretty much the same, but the difference is that the memory retrieval process can be influenced by a series of different cues, which is why you can’t always remember things when you want to.
The complexity of the process lies in the fact that you sometimes feel like you’re on the verge of remembering something, but there’s something standing in the way of that. Known as lethologica, this is a memory retrieval problem that you encounter every time you feel like a piece of certain information is on the tip of your tongue, but can’t really remember it.
While sensory memory, short-term, and long-term memory are the three separate stages proposed by Atkinson and Shiffrin, they are also intertwined:
- Sensory memory is all about perceiving the environment that surrounds you in that immediate moment. Sensory memory is only useful to us on the spot, and the information that can be used for longer than 30 seconds transitions into short-term memory.
- Short-term memory is also referred to as active memory, and it’s comprised of the memories you’re thinking of in that precise moment. According to Freud, this memory is our conscious mind, and it is a product of actively storing sensory memory that we find useful in certain situations. The information that’s stored in our short-term memory can be transferred to long-term memory, the more we think about it.
- The ultimate stage is long-term memory, and it’s information that we transfer to our subconscious mind. You don’t always think about the information stored here, but you might access it at a later time. Long-term memory isn’t always easy to access.
So, why do you remember some things and have a hard time remembering others? It’s all about how information is organized inside your mind. When you group information inside your mind, you’ll have an easier time remembering it.
There is a concept called the semantic network model, and it implies that there are triggers that can help activate associated memories. For example, you will find it easier to remember a specific place if you are exposed to triggers that remind you of that setup. Take smells, for example. Does the scent of cinnamon remind you of being a child and having your mother or grandmother bake Christmas treats? That’s an example of a semantic network model.
The ultimate question remains: why do we forget? Scientific evidence suggests that there are different factors that can contribute to memory loss, and probably the most common one is time. Since information is easy to forget, constant repetition is the key to remember.
According to memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, there are four main reasons why people forget: failure to store, interference, retrieval failure, motivated forgetting.
For instance, let’s examine the interference theory. This theory suggests that multiple events that are very similar to one another can easily get confused in one’s head. If we asked you to remember what you ate last night for dinner, you’ll most likely recall that with ease. But if we ask you about the same dinner one week from now, you might not find it so easy to remember. That’s because, between that moment and the present, you ate six more dinners.
However, if there was an unexpected event occurring in one of those evenings, you’ll find it easier to recall what you ate. For example, if you were eating on Saturday night, and you suddenly heard a loud noise, rushes outside, and saw a car crash, you will most likely remember what you were having for dinner that night. That’s because distinctive events are easier to remember.
Brain Exercises to Boost Memory & Focus
When you think about exercising your memory, you’re probably imagining all sorts of brain teasers, such as games that require memorizing stuff really fast. However, brain exercises go way beyond matching pairs of cards, and here are some examples of what you can do for working out your brain.
Dancing does more than just help you get your groove on. Not only does it provide physical benefits, because it’s basically an aerobics workout with background music, but it also stimulates serotonin production and makes you happier.
When you’re trying to learn new dance moves, perhaps follow a certain choreography, you’re actually pushing your brain into memorizing the steps, but also force it to recall them in a very short timeframe. As you’re trying to recall the steps, you’re improving your brain’s memory and processing speed.
Learning and teaching
When you learn a new skill, you’re actually one step closer to mastering something that might prove to be useful in the long run. The entire learning process itself helps strengthen some connections inside your brain, but it also helps improve adult memory.
But what if you could take learning to the next level of memory exercise by teaching someone what you’ve learned? When you attempt to pass on newly-acquired information to another person, your memory works hard to remember and explain the concepts you’ve just discovered, and also helps you correct mistakes along the way.
Listening and playing music
Listening to music is something that most of us like to do, for several reasons. It helps us calm down, induces a state of well-being, helps us fall asleep, helps us recall happy memories, etc. But studies have also revealed the fact that music can help boost creativity because it pushes people to make scenarios. Also, when you later hear a song you like and you’ve heard in the past, you will access your memory to try to remember the lyrics and sing along.
If you want to take music-related knowledge to the next steps, how about learning how to play an instrument? This isn’t just a satisfactory hobby, but it also forces your brain to remember notes, and might also boost your creativity, should you decide to write your own songs.
Playing word games
Word games are awesome on many different levels. Since they can be played with friends, they are a fun Friday evening activity, but it’s so much more than just child’s play. When you play word games, you are forced to access your vocabulary, which puts your memory at work as you try to remember certain words.
While games like Scrabbles do wonder for brain exercising, try playing a game that requires you to describe a word using other words. For instance, there is a game called Taboo where players draw cards with words on them. They have to describe the words to their team, but there’s a catch: they also have a list of words they’re not allowed to use in the description.
Certain card games are great for exercising your brain, particularly when the winning strategy implies remembering the cards that have already been played. Games like Hearts, Solitaire, or Bridge can stimulate your mental activity, according to a study conducted back in 2015.
Making a puzzle
Jigsaw puzzles are a great way to put your brain at work. This is an activity that requires using multiple cognitive abilities at once. When you’re trying to make a puzzle, you have to pay attention to pieces that fit together, while thinking about the end picture the entire time.
Playing video games
There are plenty of video games that can improve your motor skills, including your hand-eye coordination. While plenty of people argue that video games are a waste of time, depending on the game that you play, you could actually be exercising your brain. For example:
- Strategy games imply developing complex strategies for conquering or expanding.
- Shooter games are focused on making quick decision and they can improve your response times as you attempt to be the last man standing.
- Detective games are beneficial on many different levels. As you immerse in solving a mystery, your brain starts to make logical connections and attempts to memorize the facts that you learn as you progress through the game. Newer games in the genre have multiple endings depending on the choices you make in-game, which helps improve your decision-making skills, while being under the pressure that you might not catch the killer.
Escape the room
This is a new type of realistic game that has now found its way into countries all across the globe. The premise is simple: you and a bunch of your friends are trapped in a confined space, and you have 60 minutes to escape. The escape process is only successful if you gather a series of clues and solve a bunch of puzzles.
This particular activity doesn’t just train your memory, but pushes your mind to learn how to make time-based decisions, as the clock runs while you’re trying to solve mathematical problems, unlock complex mechanisms, or associate pictures and words really fast.
Sleep deprivation impacts people on a cognitive level. IT is a well-known fact that while we sleep, our brain stores the information we learn throughout the day, transitioning it from short-term to long-term memory. While plenty of students prefer to stay awake and study all night before an exam, it’s actually better to get a good night’s sleep in order to memorize the information they’ve read.
Learn a new language
It goes without saying that you can’t learn a new language without training your memory. It’s all about memorizing new words and phrases, but also about recalling them at a later time. It’s about repetition, focus, and understanding. Plus, it looks good on your resume!
Make mental associations
One of the best ways to train your memory and actually remember the things you’re supposed to be to make associations with stuff you already know. For instance, when you’re trying to learn a new concept for a course you’re taking, associate it with something that’s familiar to you.
In a Netflix documentary called “The Mind, Explained” there’s an interview with a girl that can memorize a very large number sequence in minutes. When asked how she does it, she explained that she associates each number in the sequence with elements that she would come across when taking a mental journey through an imaginary place.
For instance, let’s assume that you have to memorize the number 320. Picture yourself walking on the street. You stop in front of a cart to buy a pretzel, which is shaped like the number “3”. As you stroll through the park, you see a pond with swans (whose necks resemble the number “2”). You start to feel very hot, and look up at the sun (which looks like a “0”). See how it works?
Training your brain sounds like a chore, but it can actually be really fun as long you engage in the right activity for you. The best part about engaging in activities that exercise your memory is that there are so many different ways to do it, you are bound to discover at least one activity your fond of.
If you’re the least bit enthusiastic about video games, you can put the time spent in front of the computer to good use, and engage in playing games that require focus, attention, rapid eye movement and hand coordination, but also the ability to make time-based decisions. If you’re an outdoor type of person, know that even exercising requires focus, and that’s another way to exercise your brain.