Isn’t it frustrating when a word is on the tip of your tongue but you can’t recall it? Or when you’ve studied hard for a test but then you feel your mind go blank? Or when your boss asks you about something you know but you can’t get your thoughts in order?
Almost everyone has difficulties with memory. Even highly trained memory experts, who can recall the sequences of random packs of cards or recite Pi to hundreds of decimal places, will forget appointments or be unable to say who they met the day before. You’ll never have 100 percent recall of everything you’ve ever learned, but if you understand the reasons why your memory lets you down then you can take steps to improve it.
First, understand that memory isn’t a simple process. There are three basic components: encoding, storage, and retrieval, and problems can arise with any of these. It’s not like taking a picture on your phone and looking at it later. It’s rather more like having thousands of pictures, some of which are out of focus or too dark, stored on hundreds of phones which might be out of battery or not work at all.
Encoding is the technical term for making a memory. What you experience with your senses is transformed into electrochemical messages in your brain. If you’re not paying attention to something, it won’t get encoded. If it’s only important for a moment, it will only be encoded temporarily. If it’s associated with other memories, it will most likely be encoded in a way that’s connected with them.
So if you’re distracted or thinking of several things at once while trying to learn, you probably won’t store the information. If you’re learning something in order to repeat it in half an hour, you’re unlikely to remember it next week. If you learn something while relaxing in your room and listening to your favourite music, you might not be able to recall it when you’re in an uncomfortable and silent exam room.
Storage simply means keeping a memory somewhere. Lots of areas of the brain are involved in creating memories, but most memories are stored in the outer layer of your brain, the cerebral cortex. Billions of connections between nerve cells there provide the physical structure of memory storage. Of course, the problems that occur in encoding will have repercussions for storage too. In addition, similar memories can be stored together or even overwrite previous memories; sometimes a memory is stored but the connection to it is lost or re-routed.
Can you remember what you’ve eaten today? You probably can, though it may take a little effort. Now can you remember what you ate on this date last month? Almost certainly not, unless it was a special occasion. Similar memories are grouped together in storage, and older ones can get overwritten. What about when you meet someone and learn their name, but then you see them in an unfamiliar setting and can’t recall it? Your first thought is often, “Where have I seen them before?” You’ve lost the connection between the memory of their name and the memory of their face, so your brain tries to find a connection from the memory of the location instead.
Finally, retrieval means bringing the memory back from storage into your conscious thought. Any problems with encoding or storage will result in difficulties with retrieval. Sometimes you might try and retrieve a memory from the wrong place, or you might retrieve several connected memories but then assemble them in the wrong order.
If you’re trying to remember something you’re sure you learned from a YouTube video, but in fact you learned it because a friend told you, you’ll have that annoying sensation of knowing that you know something but being unable to recall it. You can’t retrieve it because you’re looking in the wrong place. If you’re reminiscing with a friend about a night out together, you’ll often find that although you can both remember what happened, you disagree about the order of events. You can both retrieve the memories, but then you each assemble them differently.
Memory has three components: encoding, storage and retrieval. Problems in any of these areas will mean that you’re unable to remember things that you learned. Learning without distractions, making different connections between things you’ve learned and knowing when and where you learned them can all help you to remember more easily.