Memory is the brain’s ability to store, retain, and subsequently recall information. So how does memory influence our lives?

Our memory is what makes us who we are. If we didn’t possess the ability to remember people, tasks, events, emotional reactions, directions and so on we couldn’t possibly function at all, and what we choose to remember is what makes us unique. But how our brains make memories and retain them for many years to come is a far more complex process than most of us think.

As the name suggests, short-term memory, or working memory, is short-lived – it’s active for a matter of a few seconds or a minute at the most, according to brain scientists. Our short-term memory might only have a limited capacity but it allows us to call up and use information in an instant. Whether it’s something we’ve just learnt or a memory recalled from stored information, it’s temporarily held in short-term storage. This might explain why short-term memory is sometimes referred to as the brain’s
post-it note.

It’s also a necessary step to the next stage – long-term memory, where information is transferred for permanent storage. Our long-term memory keeps in storage everything we need to recall to carry out particular tasks – from brushing our teeth or operating the remote control to general knowledge for a trivia night or reminiscing about that holiday in Fiji many years ago.

“When we sleep we’re giving our memory a helping hand to form and store our memories.”

Total recall

We’ve all experienced those times when we just can’t remember something without racking our brains. But it’s not our memory that’s letting us down in this situation – the information is all still there stored in our memory bank – it’s our recall ability that’s the problem. This is most likely to happen when we’re trying to conjure up details that we haven’t had reason to remember before. In other words, the more often we have to work to access a particular memory, the more likely we are to quickly recall it next time.

Natural selection

The clever thing about memory is that when we need to recall something in particular, it brings the most recent learning experience to the forefront and ‘forgets’ all the others. We are naturally left with the information that is most important to our daily survival. For example, if you’re trying to master the new spreadsheet program recently introduced at work, your memory will offer up your most recent experience, which would be the most helpful to you. You wouldn’t want your brain to be flooded with each and every memory relating to that software. This is one time when ‘forgetting’ is actually more useful than remembering.

Memory work out

When you have to rack your brain to recall a memory, and it’s dredged up from the recesses of your mind, that particular recollection is strengthened. The interesting thing about memory is that the harder we have to work to remember something, the more likely it will stick in our minds – just by recalling a memory, it becomes stronger in comparison to other memories. This explains why testing is used as a means of teaching and learning. Simply reading new material won’t help us retain it, having to exercise our brains and work hard to recall what we’ve learnt is what helps consolidate it and bring it to the forefront.

Sleep plays a part too

Research suggests that sleep plays an important role in memory, and the quantity and quality of sleep have a profound impact. When we sleep we’re giving our memory a helping hand to form and store our memories. This is when new and old versions of the same event – like working out how to use the new software – are consolidated. A process that is essential for learning new information. While we sleep, retained knowledge is updated and prepared for future use.

Daydream believer

Rather than being a cause for concern, allowing your mind to wander may be a good sign after all.

People who tend to daydream are often considered less capable of doing a job well. In fact, a recent study suggests the opposite may be true. The research indicates that those who have their head in the clouds more than most have a very active brain, and may be more intelligent and creative than the average person. During the study, participants who said they spent a lot of time daydreaming performed better in cognitive tasks. MRI scans of their brains showed heightened activity in regions of the brain associated with learning and memory.

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