a girl is memorizing

What is Memory? How Does Memory Work? Explained

What is Memory?

The term memory refers to the ability to remember something that is experienced, that is stored in our brain. In psychology, memory is the process by which we encode, store and retrieve information when necessary.

It is hard to imagine humans or animals without memory. There is no then but only now without memory. There is no sense of self, recall of names, or recognition of faces, past days, hours, or even seconds without it. It is a basic cognitive function, through which we bring the information already learned or the experience into the present consciousness.

It is a process from input to output. No learning occurs without memory. Learning is the process of building up, memories for future use, while memory concerns the storage and retrieval of this information.

According to Melton (1963), learning has been referred to as trace formation, memory as trace storage, and transfer of training as utilization. Neurologist R.W. Gerard (1953) opined memory involves the making of an impression by an experience, the retention of some record of this impression, and the reentry of this record into consciousness as recall and recognition.

Putting these ideas together, we can define memory as a system or process by which the product or results of learning are stored for future use. It is the ability of our brain to store the experience of learning and utilizing them at a later stage.

The scientific study of memory is very old. The pioneer in this area was Hermann Ebbinghaus, who conducted a study on memory in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was very much interested in finding out the associations of words, sounds, and visual stimuli of learning and memory.

Ebbinghaus invented nonsense syllables which are composed of three letters arranged in a constant-vowel-constant (CVC) sequence. For example, GOK, TAF, VOX, YIW are nonsense syllables. Because nonsense syllables have no meaning, Ebbinghaus believed that he would be able to study how associations between these stimuli are formed without any previous learning as school-children learn the alphabet, multiplication tables, and adults learn telephone numbers, addresses, etc. Ebbinghaus made himself as subject tried to measure memory through serial learning, paired associate learning, and free recall.

Serial learning is an ordered or sequence-wise recall. For example, you have a list of CVC containing NOQ, ZAX, VEU, etc. If you recall this list systematically as presented in the list, we have the example of serial learning. Instead, you recalled “VEU” and then others the serial learning is not accurate. Paired associate learning was developed by George Elias Muller, a German researcher. This technique associates an unfamiliar word or nonsense syllable with a familiar word. For example, presenting the word “CAT” and producing the word associated with it “VOQ”. The third method is a free recall in measuring memory, in which the subject is allowed to remember as many times as possible without following a sequence in the list. For example, memorizing the perspectives of psychology, names of the friends, or whatever the items from the list.

How Does Memory works?

Many theories of memory imply that to be good at memory it should be learned well. The mind is an active agent by which memories are formed, stored, and retrieved, and used. Psychologists like other scientists constructed models based on different research to describe how the memory process works?

One of the simple approaches to describe memory is the information processing model. Where the process passes information through three main different channels like that of the computer which input or encoding system, storage system, and retrieval system when a material is being recorded with the help of a keyboard and retrieved through different means in diskettes. Likewise, humans memory can be compared to a computer information processing system from input to output.

To remember any event we require to get information into our brain through different three processes. The working ways of memory are through encoding, storage, and retrieval.

process of memory

Encoding: Getting Information In

In the encoding stage, the sensory information is received and coded or transformed into neural impulses. These impulses can be processed further or stored for later use, just as the computer works on each keyboard entry and transforms symbols into electronic processes which may be stored on a computer disk. This sensory information is transduced, or converted, into neural impulses that can be stored and used by the brain.

In addition to transduction, the encoding process also activates rehearsing, practicing, or repeating the input. It also organizes into groups and relates the groups to already stored information. Encoding may even involve giving this information a special name or label.

Encoding is easier if the materials are meaningful, presented in visual stimuli than with meaningless materials. Some encoding is deliberate, such as studying in exams or remembering a poem, or date, or definition. While another encoding occurs simply because of thought and perception, that is why people can remember the events that happen earlier in life, though they did not try to memorize them.

Generally, encoding processes are of two types: automatic encoding and effortful encoding.

Automatic Encoding: As its name implies, automatic encoding occurs automatically with little or no effort. The material can be brought back easily. For example, the whole day’s events can be recalled in a sequence without any interference. Memories like these form almost automatically. It is also difficult to get away without registering it. For example, it is easy to recall where the key was dropped. We go on recreating the picture mentally with recall the sequence of the day’s event, where we were yesterday, who was with us, where we sat, what we wore, whom we talked with, etc.

Effortful Encoding: Encoding that requires attention and conscious effort is called effortful processing. After practice, effortful processing becomes more automatic. For example, remembering names, dates, definitions, formulas, giving attention to the professor’s words in the class requires the effort of conscious repetition and rehearsal. It is more complex and requires more time than automatic encoding.

Storage: Retaining Information

Storage is the second process in processing memory where the encoded information is retained in the memory system. Memory has often been compared to a storehouse. Some information is stored for one period of time, used very little, and discarded while others are frequently used and stored more permanently. The encoded experience recorded in the nervous system is called memory trace, neuro-gram, or engram.

Memory traces associated with some other memory traces are more often used, stored, or retained than isolated memory traces. If the isolated memory traces are not practiced frequently or not associated with the stored memories, they will be pushed out of memory and then forgotten. The repeated materials are transferred to a long-term stronger system, for example, some telephone numbers are used frequently and are therefore stored permanently.

Retrieval: Getting Information Out

Once the materials are stored in, it can be called up like that we do in a computer. We recall or bring memory into consciousness, from among the stored materials. This process is known as the retrieval process. Psychologists have distinguished three different ways of retrieving processes that are stored.

  • Recall method
  • Recognition method
  • Relearning method

Recall Method

The recall is bringing the experience into present consciousness in the absence of a stimulus. For example, in the examination, we try to recall the material we have learned earlier in the absence of notes or copies we have prepared for this purpose. We simply have to go on writing based on what we have stored in our brain. The more efficiently and accurately we retrieve the higher grades we are going to score.

Remembering the last birthday party or picnic and trying to answer a question like what was the name of that medicine you took when you had a backache? Can you remember what you read in the morning newspaper? All are examples of recall.

Recognition Method

A different way to retrieve information is through recognition. Recognition is retrieving the information in the presence of the stimulus we have already experienced. We simply require sorting out the material among other new materials before us. Usually, in the recognition process, individuals are presented with a name, or situation, or photograph and asked if they had encountered it before. This usually resembles a multiple-choice test which requires the ability to recognize previously learned or experienced materials.

Recognition is usually easier than recall because we acknowledge that it is familiar. It is a common experience that we usually say “I am sure we have met before though I can not recall your name or just where or when it was”. In one of the studies, Harry Bahrick and his colleagues (1975) reported that people who graduated 25 years earlier could not recall many of their old classmates, but they could recognize 90 percent of their pictures and names.

Relearning Method: Going Through The Material Again

Another way to test the memory is through relearning the material. It is easier than original learning. The relearning speed can reveal the memory. It saves time, effort, and is simpler than the original learning process. For example, if you once learned something and then forget it, you probably relearn it more quickly than when you learned it originally. It is like when you study for the final exam the relearning is easier. This is why the relearning method is also called a saving method.

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