How do we remember? Our memories at work

When we notice something with our senses, experience an experience or learn information for school or study, we use our brains to remember this knowledge and experiences. For this we need our different memories. Ultra-short-term memory, working memory and long-term memory. More insight into how these memories work can help us remember and recall better.

  • What is your memory?
  • The memory?
  • Ultra-short-term memory
  • Short-term memory or working memory
  • The long-term memory
  • What helps with remembering?
  • You can train your memory


What is your memory?

Your brain allows you to remember people, experiences, skills and knowledge. You might think that there is some kind of hard drive in your head like in a computer where all your memories are stored, but that is not the case. Your brain doesn’t have a hard drive. They make no distinction between processing and remembering. It used to be thought that different areas of the brain had different functions. Now the functions are associated with networks of brain cells. These networks are flexible and plastic, i.e. they can be expanded into old age. In any case, there is no memory, according to brain research collected in the book Brain Work by Max van der Linden (2018).

The memory?

The hippocampus appears to play a role in memory, but exactly which role is not known (state of affairs 2019). It seems that sleep or daydreaming, when the brain is not active, is beneficial for memory. The hippocampus may function as a kind of intermediate station or memory consolidation for recent memories that are moved via the hippocampus to the cortex by ‘sharp wave ripples’ (synchronous activity of many neurons through which incoming information is, as it were, replayed and sent to the cortex where these memory traces are stabilized and stored (via processes such as LTP and LTD).

Neurons that are active together become more strongly connected with each new activation: the theory of synaptic plasticity (formulated by the Canadian neurologist Donald Hebb in 1949). By keeping neurons that together represent a certain experience connected, the memory trace remains active and exists. This way you remember everything (better) and you can make optimal connections and thus gain new knowledge. Long term potentation (LTP) is a process in which an active neuron has generated an action potential, causing the receiving neuron to develop additional synapses. If the first neuron then sends a signal to the second neuron, it will in turn more easily generate an action potential. This way you strengthen the connection, the memory trace. Long term depression (LTD) is the opposite process, where synaptic connections between neurons are reduced for extended periods of time. Both processes are necessary to remember things.

Different parts of a scan light up when you ask about memories. So it is a function of the entire brain. The hippo campus and then the medial prefrontal cortex are also involved in information retrieval. They are responsible for storing memory traces in the cortex.

The cortical brain areas that were involved in forming the memory are also involved in its retrieval. If you learn visual information, the visual cortex is also involved in remembering what you have learned. It may happen that you recognize something and therefore have remembered it somewhere (receptive), but do not consciously remember it yourself (active or productive). People have a good memory for images, even better than for words. So memory actually doesn’t exist at all. It’s not like saving on a PC, that we can store things in our memory. There are different types of memory. First of all when it comes to what is and is not noticed and remembered, then what is actively processed by the brain and finally whether this is stored in the brain. We are talking about:

  • The ultra-short-term memory
  • The short-term memory
  • The long-term memory


Ultra-short-term memory

Ultra-short-term memory is also called sensory memory. Actually, we should be talking about memories, because every sense has its own ‘memory’, each with a small difference in retention time (which varies between 15 and 300 milliseconds!). The visual memory, for example, only retains all the information we acquire through our eyes for a fraction of a second. The sensory memory intensively filters out what is further processed.

Short-term memory or working memory

From the senses, a fraction of the content ends up in our short-term memory. In addition, it also processes the data that we retrieve from long-term memory to process this information. This concerns everything we actively edit.

What is short-term memory involved?

  • Remembering instructions
  • Solving problems
  • Following a storyline
  • Maintaining concentration
  • Completing tasks
  • Story sums in arithmetic
  • Reading comprehension
  • Starting and stopping a task

Short-term memory is also called working memory. That’s not entirely correct, but it is largely correct. Usually something is kept in this for twenty to thirty seconds. If there are few new stimuli or input, it could be as long as two minutes. But it remains short. And very little fits in it. New information therefore logically replaces the information it contained. About seven figures on average. Or rather ‘chunks’. This can be a number, but also a full date.

The long-term memory

The network of connections of nerve cells in long-term memory can be compared to the road network. Roads that are frequently used resemble highways; the connection is fast and smooth. Less used roads are like dirt paths: transport is slow and intensive. In case of congestion or traffic jams, you can temporarily try to use special transport. But this doesn’t really change anything. Only by building new roads and using them often can you improve the traffic situation or your memory. Just as road construction uses tar, your brain uses protein stored in our DNA. Every piece of new information (but the same also applies to a resurfaced memory) creates new mutual connections. So your brain is constantly changing. Not everything is preserved; there is constant cleaning going on. Sometimes you can remember things that you haven’t thought about in a long time. For example, looking at old photos may reveal information that you thought you had forgotten. This means that it was still present unnoticed, because information that has been lost cannot be retrieved. So it is important to keep the connections intact. Fortunately, a single brain cell can have a thousand connections. And if ultra-short-term memory and short-term memory already have different memories, this is especially true for long-term memory. Stamping, repeating certain information over and over again in order to remember it better is therefore not necessary. There are more effective ways to train your memory.

There are different long-term memory(s):

  • Declarative memory
  • Procedural memory
  • Autobiographical memory
  • Prospective memory

Declarative memory
Declarative memory, or explicit memory, is conscious memory: facts and other information that you can retrieve, that you know. This memory is subdivided (according to Endel Tulving) into:

  • Episodic memory: this memory is based on what we have consciously experienced. You see something, you hear or taste or feel something. You become happy when you smell the scent of lavender, because it reminds you of your holiday in France.
  • Semantic memory: if a memory from experience is converted into language and we can still retrieve the information, even independently of this experience, this information is in the semantic memory. France, arrondissement of Provence, its former capital during the Middle Ages was Aix-en-Provence, Marseille in the Bouches-du-Rhône department is the current capital of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, and so on.

Procedural memory
This memory is specific to certain skills and the course of certain actions. How to cycle, for example. It’s not about words, it’s about skills . When you are young it is easier to learn certain skills. For example, the saying that when you learn young is done when you are old is still in use. You can also use skills that you have already mastered with new movements to learn. This way you learn faster and better.

Autobiographical memory
These are your personal memories. These are not fixed, as is sometimes thought, but are reassembled each time you pick them up. Because these memories are equally unstable when you retrieve them, the brain can quickly incorporate new information into these existing memories. In this way you actually build up an existing memory over and over again, and that also means that they can change. You can distinguish between specific memories (my first day of school, the graduation party, a first date) and generalized memories (my first job, my first marriage). In generalized memories, multiple memories of the same phase or period are taken together to construct a memory. It can happen that you remember something and visualize it in your working memory, without it actually happening that way. You remember exactly how fun it always was during your student days to have breakfast with your housemates after your night out.

Prospective memory
This memory is about when something should happen in the (near or not) future. You have an appointment at two o’clock tomorrow, but do you still know that at that time? Or do you let your memory be helped by setting an alarm or calendar notification? Or does your hair happen to appear in front of your eyes and does that make you think about your appointment at the hairdresser, hopefully in time?

What helps with remembering?

The role of intelligence is not completely clear, but on average people with a higher IQ have a higher capacity to remember things. It is still unclear exactly how this works. Nowadays, the parieto-frontal integration theory is often cited to explain the role of intelligence in the brain. In addition to a number of other brain areas, the frontal lobes in the brain and the parietal part of the brain (under the skull, at the top of the back of the head), where sensory impressions are combined, are mainly involved in intelligence. Here the sum of the parts is more important than the individual parts. Only when the connections between the different brain areas are strongly developed can you speak of high intelligence.

Attention/Focus Consciously paying attention helps when learning information, because it actively influences the activity of the neurons in our brain. Two attention systems are distinguished:

  • Stimulus -driven attention (stimuli from outside ‘capture’ your attention), which requires no effort.
  • The controlled, conscious attention . This form of attention is conscious and therefore requires effort. This is also called a self-managing function, because you have influence on it.

Focused and sustained attention helps you remember things better (although you can also learn unconsciously). Stimuli are distracting because they themselves demand attention. So reduce the number of stimuli as much as possible if you want to consciously record something to remember .

Motivation If you are motivated to know or remember something, it is easier to pay attention to it for a long time. There are two types of motivation:

  • Intrinsic motivation (the internal drive to want to learn something)
  • Extrinsic motivation (rewards or compliments, for example, provide motivation from outside)

Small steps, without delay By setting small(er) goals you can achieve results more easily. If you start right away, you are less likely to be distracted beforehand to do something else.

Emotions When we are emotionally involved, we remember information better, in addition to how we felt about it. You can also respond to this by consciously evoking certain feelings or linking them to certain information. Or turn it into a story. This can be done by making a connection with your own life or environment, or thinking of examples that make an extra appeal to our emotions. For example, you can think of an extra sad story to remember the course of the French Revolution (Suppose you are a boy who turns fourteen on July 14, 1789, the day of the storming of the Bastille, an event that marked the beginning of the French Revolution). Revolution marked, and then ). This way you give emotional shape to the lesson material and that helps you remember it. This also applies to coming up with images to remember the names of your new classmates, for example. This way you can provide names that are often neutral in themselves with an emotional or funny charge.

Stress Stress helps our memory. To a certain extent. We are more alert, perform better (cognitively) and can respond faster. Only the most important things get through to us. Information is stored very well under these conditions. There is a difference between acute, incidental stress and chronic stress. The latter always has a negative effect on our brain and its functioning.

When stress reaches a certain level and panic breaks out, it becomes more difficult to retrieve information. It has also been stored properly before. It is therefore important, especially if you have exam anxiety, to ensure that you do not add much more stress to the stress that the exam itself already causes. If you are too stressed, go for a walk or cycle or listen to calm music that you like. And when the day of the exam comes: make sure you arrive on time (and therefore leave on time!), that you are well prepared and don’t do anything exciting beforehand. Agree clear guidelines with yourself during the exam to keep stress within limits. If you get stuck, for example, continue to the next question and look back at the open spots later. If the stress does increase, take a mindful distance by closing your eyes for a minute and breathing calmly. This is how you take back control.

You can train your memory

A good memory can be learned. Research (cited in Konrad, 2018) shows that there is no difference in brain structure between memory champions and ‘normal’ people. But more connections can be seen between nerve cells in the brain in the brains of memory athletes. More activity leads to more connection. So the good news is that you can learn to develop a good memory. That starts with what you notice, i.e. what you want to remember. Thinking in images helps our memory, and using our senses also makes it easier for us to remember information. Conscious attention to wanting to remember something is important. And by retrieving the information already stored in long-term memory and connecting it with the new information, we can remember it better. In addition, there are many tips and tricks to help your memory. But that does mean a lot of practice. And that is hard work.

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