Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What is memory?

Memory is our ability to store, retain and recall information.

This is the basis of a large part of our education and our daily life. We rememember how to tie our shoe laces, how to get dressed. We remember our own name and that of others. As we live each day, we remember information, feelings and experiences.

I work in the software industry, so when I apply my information processing view of the world, I see memory as consisting of three stages:

Encoding the information - receiving and processing the information
Storing the information - creating a permanent record of the information in my long term memory, usually by associating it with something I already know.
Retrieval or Recall of the information - accessing the information in response to some cue or request.

I am going to write about all three aspects of memory in my blog, but the major focus will be ways to store the information. Often our "bad memory" problems can be caused by not getting the information to begin with. Consider the situation of being introduced to someone. You are so busy worrying what you are going to say, that you don't hear the introduction. Later you realise you don't know the person's name because you never got it to begin with!

The are three broad types of memory:

Sensory memory occurs less than on second after an item is perceived. However the information is forgotten almnost as quickly as it is received/

Short-term memory allows recall for a short period of time without rehearsal. Rehearsal is when we repeat the information to create a stronger impression. George Miller's work at Bell Laboraties showed that the short term memory is about 7 items. Think about how you remember a telephone number or a person's address. The capacitiy of short-term memory can be increased through a process of chunking, for example grouping telephone numbers in chunks of 3 digits.

Long-term memory can store large quantities of information for potentially unlimited durations. The long-term memory is encoded in the connections in our neurons. Mew memories are associated with older memories as a result of more neuron connections. That's why you can remember things better if you have multiple ways to associate the new information. There will be more ways to "file" the information.

Memory techniques are primarily aimed at improving the Long-Term memory system.

More information at Wikipedia in the article on Memory

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