Memory, of course, is heavily related to learning. If memory is a storage system that exists within specific neural pathways, then learning is about changing neural pathways to adapt one’s behavior and thinking to the emergence of new information. They depend on each other because the goal of learning is to assimilate new knowledge into memory, and memory is useless without the ability to learn more.
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Memorization is how we store and retrieve information for use (essentially the process of learning), and there are three steps to creating a memory. An error in any of these steps will result in knowledge that is not effectively converted to memory—a weak memory or the feeling of “I can’t remember his name, but he was wearing purple…”
1. Encoding 2. Storage 3. Retrieval
Encoding is the step of processing information through your senses. We do this constantly, and you are doing it right now. We encode information both consciously and subconsciously through all of our senses. If you are reading a book, you are using your eyes to encode information, but how much attention and focus are you actually using? The more attention and focus you devote to an activity, the more conscious your encoding becomes—otherwise, it can be said that you subconsciously encode information, like listening to music at a café or seeing traffic pass you by at a red light.
How much focus and attention you devote also determines how strong the memory is and, consequently, whether that memory only makes it to your short-term memory or if it passes through the gate to your long-term memory. If you are reading a book while watching television, your encoding is probably not too deep or strong.
Storage is the next step after you’ve experienced information with your senses and encoded it. What happens to the information once it passes through your eyes or ears? There are three choices for where this information can go, and they determine whether it’s a memory that you will consciously know exists. There are essentially three memory systems: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.
The last step of the memory process is retrieval, which is when we actually use our memories and can be said to have learned something. You might be able to recall it from nothing, or you might need a cue to bring the memory up. Other memories might only be memorized in a sequence or as part of a whole, like reciting the ABCs and then realizing you need to sing it to remember how it goes. Usually, however much attention you devoted to the storage and encoding phases of memory determines just how easy it is to retrieve those memories. Most of the learning process isn’t necessarily focused on retrieval—it’s focused on the storage aspect and what you can do to force information from sensory and short-term areas into long-term areas.
Think about when you cram for a test. You want information you experience to be in your brain for perhaps 24 hours, which means it has to exist beyond short-term memory and certainly beyond sensory memory. You might not care if you remember this information about the French Revolution at the end of the year, so you will reach a level of attention and focus that will push the information into the hazy area between short-term and long-term memory. In reality, what’s happening is that you will rehearse the information enough to make a very faint imprint on your long-term memory.
Improving your learning, in a sense, is the same as improving your memory capacity and how absorbent your memory is—the more sponge-like, the better. However, learning is both the process of improving memory while also getting better at not forgetting. Why do we forget? Why can’t we remember this fact? How did we ever let something slip from our brains?
As you have read, forgetting is usually a failure or shortcoming in the storage process—the information you want only makes it to short-term memory, not long-term. The problem isn’t that you can’t find the information in your brain; it’s that the information wasn’t embedded strongly enough in your brain to begin with.
Sometimes it’s easier to think about forgetting as a failure in learning. There are generally three different ways you retrieve or access your memories:
1. Recall 2. Recognition 3. Relearning
Recall is when you remember a memory without external cues. It’s when you can recite something on command in a vacuum—for example, looking at a blank piece of paper and then writing down the capitals of all of the countries of the world. When you can recall something, you have the strongest memory of it. You have either rehearsed it enough or attached enough significance to it so that it is an incredibly strong memory within your long-term memory. Of course, because recall represents the strongest level of memory, it’s also typically the toughest to achieve. It would typically require hours of rehearsal or study to get anywhere close to this. When we study, we want information to enter this realm, but we will usually settle for the next type of memory retrieval.
Recognition is when you can conjure up your memory in the presence of an external cue. It’s when you might not be able to remember something by pure recall, but if you get a small clue or reminder, you will be able to remember it. For example, you might not be able to remember all of the capitals of the world, but if you got a clue such as the first letter of the capital or something that rhymes with the capital, it would be fairly easy to state it. When we cram information, this is typically what we end up with. This is also how mnemonics and similar memory devices work. We know we aren’t able to definitively store and recall so many pieces of information with a massive amount of rehearsal, so we work on chunking information into easily recognizable cues.
Relearning is undoubtedly the weakest form of recall. It occurs when you are relearning or reviewing information and it takes you less effort each subsequent time. For example, if you read a list of country capitals on Monday and it takes you 30 minutes, it should take you 15 minutes the next day, and so on. Unfortunately, this is where we mostly lie on a daily basis. We might be familiar with a concept, but we haven’t committed enough of it to memory to avoid essentially relearning it when we look at it again. This is what happens when we are new to a topic or we’ve forgotten most of it already. When you’re in the relearning stage, you essentially haven’t taken anything past the barrier of short-term memory into long-term memory.
Not only are we fighting weak encoding or storage in our quest for learning, but we are also fighting the brain’s natural tendency to forget as soon as possible.
This is encapsulated by the forgetting curve, a concept pioneered by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. Below is a picture of the forgetting curve, courtesy of Wranx.com.
This shows the rate of memory decay and forgetting over time if there is no attempt to move this information into long-term memory. If you read something about the French Revolution on Monday, then it’s typically expected that you will remember only half of it after four days and retain as little as 30% at around a week’s time. If you don’t review what you’ve learned, it’s very likely you will only retain 10% of what you learned about the French Revolution. At some point you might just remember that a short guy named Napoleon was involved.
However, if you review and rehearse it, you can see in the graph above how you will retain and memorize more over time. You will bump the retention level back up to 100%, and then the graph will start to become shallower, indicating less decay.
The goal with the knowledge of the forgetting curve is to make the curve shallower—to make it resemble a horizontal line as much as possible. That would indicate very little decay, and doing that requires constant review and rehearsal.
Ebbinghaus found patterns for memory loss and isolated two simple factors that affected the forgetting curve. First, the rate of decay was significantly blunted if the memory was strong and powerful and had personal significance to the person. Second, the amount of time and how old the memory was determined how quickly and severely it decayed. This suggests there is little we can do about forgetting other than to come up with tactics to assign personal significance to information and rehearse more often.
As you can see, forgetting isn’t as simple as having something on the tip of your tongue or rummaging through the stores of your brain. There are very specific processes that make it a near-miracle that we actually retain as much as we do.
Now that you’ve been inundated with more brain science than you’ve likely read since high school, let’s shift gears and talk about the psychological factors that are key to effective learning. This is nicely summed up in what’s called the learning success pyramid. This takes us from the biological processes to the psychological mindsets that help us in our goals.