What is memory? How does it work? Where does the information we retain go? Can we improve our memory?

First of all, memory is a superior cognitive function that we can assimilate to a mental faculty. It allows the recording, conservation and restitution of distant or close information. There are two main functions: short-term memory and long-term memory.
Many functions/systems exist in the different memories, but we are going to focus more on retention, i.e. the encoding, storage and retrieval of information.
For example, let’s imagine that we want to retain a small list of words on a sheet of paper: as soon as we read it, we will set up encoding techniques that allow the words to enter short-term memory, also called working memory.

  • Phonological loop
    The visual information will be captured by the phonological loop which will encode and record the verbal information written or read for a period of two seconds. This loop will take care of the mental repetition of the information that is happening in our brain. If the words have not been repeated enough times, they will be forgotten.
  • Visual-spatial cueing
    This system allows the maintenance of visual mental images, and spatial information in memory. (For example, if a friend mentions the name of our friend ‘Julien’, we will directly form a mental image of Julien’s face, in order to associate a name with a face).
  • The central administrator
    This system manages the activity of the visuo-spatial notepad, the phonological loop and the episodic buffer. It is responsible for processing information via control processes. It allows the allocation of attentional resources necessary for the maintenance of information in the phonological loop and the visual-spatial cue point.
  • Episodic buffer
    This buffer is responsible for maintaining and integrating information from the phonological loop, the visual-spatial cue point and long-term memory. This information is not juxtaposed; the episodic buffer must assemble it in order to build a coherent representation. The buffer is
    linked to the long-term episodic memory. Its particularity allows it to retain several sources of information which have several formats at the origin and it has a greater capacity of maintenance than the other modules of the working memory. The episodic buffer allows us to keep in working memory more
    more complex information that allows us to interact with others.

It is important to know that once these words have been sufficiently repeated, a memory trace will be formed and this trace will be stored in long-term memory. More precisely, in episodic memory, i.e. the memory of the memory of events and personal experiences, of contextual details (temporal, spatial, perceptive, sensory and emotional).
All the elements related to the situation experienced at the time of encoding can serve as potential clues for retrieving the memory. Episodic memory does not age well over time and will undergo small modifications and distortions as time goes by. To avoid this, the memory trace must be well consolidated so that it can be transferred to the semantic memory.

But what is semantic memory?

It is the memory of general knowledge about the world, language and ourselves. It is the memory of words, ideas, concepts, of our identity. It is stable and is built by the accumulation of repeated identical episodes, which over time form knowledge detached from its context. It is a phenomenon of semantization: the experience is transformed into knowledge which becomes generic.
According to SCHACTER (psychologist), retrieval “is the capacity to restore a previously encoded and stored information into a mental representation”. The information we want to retrieve becomes accessible to the consciousness in the form of a symbolic representation (image, verbal).

Can we improve our memory? If so, how?

One of the researchers became famous by his article which studies the capacity of the mnesic span, is G. MILLER since he discovered the magic number which is the retention of 7 plus or minus 2 items (between 5 and 9 items) in the 1950s.
The memory span corresponds to the limits of the self-repetition process of short-term memory. When the lists are composed of 5 items (it can be letters, words, etc.), this does not generally pose any difficulty. If we increase the list, it becomes progressively more and more difficult, especially at
more and more difficult, especially at 7. From 9 it is almost impossible to recall them in order.

For example, we want to recall the letters T A B L E and M O T O
We can easily retrieve them in order since the memory groups the letters according to their meaning. Instead of 9 items, we have 2 chunks, knowing that a chunk is a grouping by meaning.
We have 13 letters that we group into 4 chunks ANPE EDF PDG BMW
So according to Miller, the memory span is defined as 7+-2 chunks (units of meaning/semantic grouping) in adults.

We can improve the capacity and quality of our memory retention:

  • First, we need to train our memory to learn. It will get used to work and to process the information we want to retain.
  • Make good connections. This is why I mentioned the memory span (7 plus or minus 2 items) and chunks, since finding meaning in words and linking them to words that are already integrated into our memory is vital and what we do without necessarily realizing it. For example, the word “red” will trigger the word “blood” in our memory, as will “apple” and “grandpa’s shirt”, for example. Our brain is constantly making connections to find commonalities with different information in order to link them together.
  • Find your method. Everyone has their own specific way of learning. Many people read their lessons out loud, some will copy sentences in writing… It depends on the person and the method that fits. Specifically, you may well have a visual memory or an auditory memory.
    By having more of a visual memory, you would retain better the information (diagrams, or sentences) written. If we take the example of a seaside vacation, we will more simply remember detailed images of sorts.
    However, an auditory memory allows the retention of vocal information that is heard or listened to, for example the rules of the house that our mother told us and repeated over and over. We should try to do some retention exercises so that we can explore and compare the different methods and see which one would suit us best. No “precise” test is available on the internet, you really have to take some time to find out for yourself.