Psychology of Human Memory

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In a previous post, I spoke of academic advising for students as 1 of 2 of areas of expertise that I help people with. In this new post, I describe my second specialty, the psychology of normal human memory. 

What comes to mind when you hear/see the word “memory”?  

Maybe you think of memory as nothing more than storage space in your brain.  

Perhaps your thoughts drift to natural loss of memory that comes with ageing and people you knew with diagnosed memory disorders. 

In the simplest sense, yes, “memory” refers to storage, and “memories” are retrievals of information from storage, but just how important is that storage? To answer that, consider what your brain would be like without it.  

Do this right now: Pretend your memory is just a filing cabinet. You put things in it. You retrieve items from it. That’s its usefulness. 

Now what if, instead, you realized that nearly every aspect of what it takes to have a meaningful life involves what enters that storage cabinet and your capacity to retrieve its contents?  

Also, what if I told you this cabinet needs to be big enough to hold all information that has ever entered your brain that you can recollect? 

What if I said that your ability to walk, run an obstacle course, be attentive, perceive the world around you, accumulate knowledge, learn and use language, recognize people you know, cultivate relationships with strangers, ride a bicycle, make decisions, understand consequences, solve problems, drive a vehicle, and reason on situations are all based on what is in that cabinet? 

When you ponder the countless things that humans can do that relies on memory, maybe you can see why this one aspect of psychology drew my interest enough to spend an entire year analyzing published peer-reviewed research reports and other credible material on normal human memory. (This followed a 3-year formal study of psychology which followed completion of my graduate study in engineering.) 

What I learned during that year changed my view of life because it tuned me in to just how much memory impacts nearly everything involved in a fully functioning, healthy life. 

Some brain functions do not rely much on memory. For example, breathing is an involuntary action that we naturally do from birth without thinking and without needing to be taught. Also, there are primitive reflexes that allow a baby to reach out and grasp, nurse (including swallowing) milk from its mother’s breasts without fear or confusion over what to do, and cry as a signal that it is fearful, hungry, sleepy, uncomfortable, and so on.

Additionally, there are procedural activities such as walking, running, and using utensils that we learn from young ages and are generally not lost in cases of amnesia. (Cognitive psychologists call these “procedural memories”.)

Beyond the aforementioned, just about everything else that you have come to know in life was taught to you, or modeled for you to imitate, or you learned on your own. The capacity to recall that information requires something: A complex memory system. 

Do you see why human memory is more than just a storage bank? 

Further fascinating is that information in our memories can be transformed, expanded on, deepened, connected to other memories, and also forgotten.  

Forgetting is another part of the study of memory that perplexed me. I wondered what forgetting actually means, why we forget, how rapidly we forget, and what we can do to counter it. 

Since my yearlong analysis of the psychology of normal human memory, I have spoken to numerous audiences of students, faculty members, and professionals outside of academia about this important subject. If you are a functioning human of any age, memory should interest you due to how much it is part of our lives.  

In case you still wonder how important memory is, I encourage you to watch a documentary featuring people who have severe amnesia whether retrograde (loss of past memories), anterograde (unable to form new long-term memories), or both. The remarkable case of former BBC musician Clive Wearing was especially jolting to me. Imagine that your spouse enters the room, you show your delight to see her/him by sharing a hug and words of appreciation. Then s/he briefly leaves your sight. Upon coming into view again, you have no recollection of seeing her/him seconds earlier, and so you again greet her/him with a hug and an appreciative comment.

The importance of memory goes beyond being able to recognize people and recall facts. It’s also about learning and processing information. This is where students benefit greatly from what I teach them, because most are used to approaching learning in unproductive ways, only they don’t realize it.  

Think back to your childhood. Were you ever taught how to most effectively learn, or did you just show up for school day after day and take notes as you were told to do? If you did receive instruction on how to learn and study, did it happen as an ongoing part of your education during the year, and continue year after year? Listening and taking notes are important, but they are merely starting points for learning new information.  

I spent 14+ years in the classroom, teaching mathematics in community colleges and a university. Over that time, I taught thousands of students. Then I became an academic advisor at a university where I lodged over 2300 meetings with undergraduate and graduate students.  

In all those years, I saw that students almost always knew very little about how to learn beyond listening and taking notes. I heard people tell me they were awful with learning and/or test-taking. The most common deficiency in these cases was that students had never learned how to learn, how to study, how to retain information long-term, how to reason, and how to solve problems. However, those who followed through on what they learned from me on learning and memory saw significant improvements. They no longer looked upon learning as an exercise in memorization.  

By the way, the concept of a filing cabinet is not a good simile for human memory. You can write something on a piece of paper, deposit it in a filing cabinet, leave it there for decades, and then retrieve the paper with what you wrote on it unchanged; human memory does not work in that way.  

What help do I offer? 

For students: Some of the most common ways that students attempt to learn and study have very poor success rates, and the natural reaction of these students is to presume they have lousy memories, are bad at taking tests, or are not so smart. My objective is help individuals learn what’s missing. I teach them a range of things to do to re-shape their processes of learning, studying, retaining, reasoning, recollecting, and how to intelligently study for tests. Every student who has followed my advice, and had occasional check-ins with me to review their progress and for fine tuning, have significantly improved.  

For professionals: Learning does not stop with a formal education. A professional faces ongoing new information to learn, ideas to develop, people to meet, presentations to learn and deliver, and so on. It’s important to be able to mentally absorb information and recall it when you need it. Additionally, when a professional speaks to audiences, there are smart, effective ways to do it for the benefit of the audience. I so often see speakers having done things in preparation and/or delivery that result in audience frustration. When this happens, audience members lose interest and respect for the speaker. I teach professionals how to avoid these problems.

Gaining an understanding of learning and memory is valuable for everyone, since each of us is in a persistent state of learning and using our memories all day every day. Moreover, by realizing what you can do to combat forgetting, the disappointment that comes with so easily forgetting does not have be your reality.  

I love talking about the psychology of normal human memory and helping people to improve theirs. 

Thanks for reading!

[Image credit: verywellmind com] 

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  1. This is insightful. This resonates with me. I taught mathematics to junior secondary school students for several years. I discovered that by listening to the students and by analyzing my teaching practices. Not only do this help to develop more elaborated conceptions of how students’ mathematical thinking develops but I also learned mathematical concepts.