• Reflective Resources

M is for Memory and Memories

What is memory?


“Memory is a gift of nature;

the ability to acquire, retain and use information and knowledge

Endel Tulving (Introduction to Memory 1995)


The study of memory began in 1885 with Herman Ebbinghaus (24/01/1850 – 26 /02/1909) Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who pioneered the experimental study of memory, and is known for his discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect. He was also the first person to describe the learning curve.


Memory is the brain’s record of an event and involves connections among a group of brain networks that initially fired together during learning and then fired together once more during remembering. Not all experiences are permanently stored in the brain – some are transient, fading quickly with time and new experiences, others are relatively permanent, and some are permanently lost (which is useful for the brain to remove clutter).


Types of memory


Working (short term) keeps our current thoughts in mind. Working memory is short-term memory that's used to execute specific tasks. Working memory is a system that's designed to manipulate and use short-term memories. There are two types of working memory: auditory memory and visual-spatial memory. ( Auditory memory records what you're hearing while visual-spatial memory captures what you're seeing.)


Procedural (long term) helps us learn and perform skilled actions

The procedural memories are also called implicit (unconscious, long-term memory) because the previous experiences help in performing a task better without explicit and conscious awareness of previous experiences.


Episodic (long term) is used to acquire and remember lifetime experiences. Episodic memory allows the collection of personal experience related to a particular place or time. It is considered as unique and most advanced form of memory in human.


Semantic (long term) memories refer to 'knowing that' certain things are true. The maintains our factual knowledge, understanding, definitions etc


Can we trust our memories?


“A memory illusion occurs when a rememberer’s report of a past even seriously deviates from the event’s actual occurrence” Henry Roediger


Memories can’t always be trusted. It has been shown that up to 50% of memories in your head are not accurate and didn’t happen as you remember them.


“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.” Julian Barnes


When we recount an event we have a tendency to generalise, delete and distort. We filter reality through our own perspectives, assumptions and judgments. The act of remembering is more reconstructive than reproductive – we have a tendency to fill in the gaps and vague bits which then become a ‘fact’ upon repetition.


“Memories are attributions that we make about our mental experiences based on their subjective qualities, our prior knowledge and beliefs, our motives and goals and the social context” Marcia Johnson


How many times have you been at an event and then heard someone recount a completely different experience to the one that you remember? Our episodic memory represents an interpretation of an event not a perfect record of it and people remember an event differently because their interpretation of an event is different.


Our visual memory is also flawed. One of the most impressive illusions in visual memory is called 'boundary extension', a discovery that runs opposite to almost all of the previous findings in the literature.


"With memory distortion a picture or a photograph are remembered with a greater extent than actually present, as if the subject was using in his memory a wider angle of view, going as far as inserting new items in the new created space" (Intraud & Richardson, 1989).


Our memory and our interactions with others


Our memories can’t always be trusted and this is particularly important to remember when we listen to and communicate with others.


We can have a tendency to generalise and use terms like – always, never etc. We speak in absolutes and in so doing not only does it change how we respond and the action we take but it affects the opportunities we give others to respond to us.


We delete when we take a story and then remove pieces of the reality to fit our narrative and how we are feeling currently

We distort when we remove responsibility from ourselves and put responsibility on external forces. In so doing we are giving our power away


Benefits of our flawed memory


“The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.” Friedrich Nietzsche


This can be extremely useful or annoying when we watch a film for example. I for one have spent time watching a film only to suddenly remember that I had watched it before and remembered how it ends. At other times I have occasionally set out to deliberately watch something again and found that I had forgotten so many extra details in it and so enjoyed it even more than anticipated!


Remembering the past enables us to imagine and plan the future.


“Our imperfect, reconstructive memory provides us with the mental flexibility needed to allow our interpretations of past events to be recombined in novel ways so that we can imagine and plan the future – it enables us to travel mentally backward and forward in time”

Daniel Schacter


We are natural story tellers the world over


“Stories can function as our minds flight simulator” Keith Oakley


Our brains become active when presented with sights, sounds, movement and these same networks become active when we are engaged with a story.


How often have you been told to ‘sleep on it’ when struggling with a difficult problem? Even when we sleep our brain doesn’t stop; it stays awake telling us stories allowing us to extract information from past experiences, weave this with our imagination and come up with new solutions as to how we might respond to present challenges or in the future rather than repeating old responses and routines.


People who have trouble remembering will also find it hard to imagine the future because remembering and imagining share a common brain network


Explicit and implicit memory


Explicit memory is when we consciously recollect a past event. Implicit remembering is when we are being influenced by a past event without conscious awareness. This is where bias comes in. We all make social judgments whether we are conscious of it or not.


Stereotypes -a set of positive or negative beliefs about a group of people - can be implicitly aroused too. Stereotypes about race, gender and culture can influence us explicitly or implicitly Implicit prejudicial attitudes formed in early life can linger long after explicit attitudes have become unbiased


How can we improve the memories that we store?


“You should always be taking pictures, if not with a camera then with your mind. Memories you capture on purpose are always more vivid than the ones you pick up by accident.”

Isaac Marion


Very simply put, we can improve the memories that we store by living with intention and focus. We create stronger memories when we pay closer attention. Creating long lasting memories involves attending to the meaning of an experience and relating it to things that we already know. If we pay limited attention to our surroundings and our experiences then we will reap a limited recall.


"give the here and now

as much power as the thoughts

of the past and the future -

for it is now

where memories are made

and the future is built”

P. T Berkey


For actors, memory is essential to learn their lines. There are two types of rehearsal techniques:

Maintenance – repeatedly reciting material in working memory i.e. rote repetition which is not particularly effective for long term memory and

Elaborative where one associates new material to things already in the long term memory e.g. creating a meaning or association to the character an actor plays. Elaborative rehearsal focuses attention on the meaning of an item or event, helping us to connect it to things that we already know and possible uses for those objects or consequences. These associations are important because they are used later as cues to remember.


“Good rememberers are made not born” Anders Ericsson


Mnemonics and memory


Mnemonics are a useful tool for helping us to attach our attention. There are two types of mnemonics:

Pegword mnemonics which uses mental imagery to connect items to a sequence of word rhymes and

The Loci method that uses mental imagery to connect items to familiar locations eg walking down a familiar street or around a house.


It is important to remember that memorisation is less important than knowing how to access, evaluate and use the information you have though.


There has been some debate as to whether the internet will lead to the decline in memory or help us. Whereas it is true that we no longer are required to hold vast amounts of knowledge in our heads, we still have to know where to look so perhaps the trade off (if there is one) is that we have greater access to all sorts of resources at the touch of our fingertips and unlike a dictionary where you have to know how to spell a word to be able to look it up, nowadays we can type in a phrase or a train of thought ‘ a word that describes''What happens if we…?' and come up with new vocabulary or the latest research on an area of interest.


Why is memory important?


“Information about the past is useful only to the extent that it allows us to anticipate what may happen in the future” Daniel Schacter


We give a lot of power to our past e.g. I am who I am because of my past. In a sense this is true because our past choices have lead to our current reality but we are always only one choice away from making a change and having a different experience of life


“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards” White Queen to Alice


The most important thing is not the past but the present and what you do now. The actions that you take right now will create your present and future reality.


“Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn't. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!” John Irving


Our thoughts can help us or heed us. It is important to learn to recognise the power (and responsibility) that we have particularly if almost half of our thoughts might not be true anyway.


With memory it is often unpredictable. We can try really hard to remember something but still forget or not think we are paying attention but then remember something unexpectedly.


Other’s memory can be a bane or a blessing too!


“People have an annoying habit of remembering things they shouldn't.” Christopher Paolini


How do we maintain our memory?


We need a mix of both intellectual activity and physical activity for memory maintenance.


Maintaining cognitive function requires a mentally engaging lifestyle that involves learning new activities that requires sustained effort and are cognitively demanding e.g. second languages, playing an instrument, taking an online course etc


We maintain physical fitness and slow memory’s decline by aerobic exercise, reducing chronic stress, sufficient sleep and eating a healthy diet.


What you eat and drink can have an effect on your memory. Researchers have found e.g. that turmeric can help prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. The research shows that turmeric prevents the degradation of neurons in the brain, which helps prevent the symptoms of dementia and memory loss.


Spending time in nature can improve your memory, focus and attention. Studies have found that walking 50 minutes in nature boosted people’s moods as well as their working memories and attention


There are many other examples of things we can do to improve, stave of memory deterioration but these will be covered under another post.


To end there is a rare type of memory that is like a super- memory; Savant syndrome.

Savant syndrome is characterised by a deep knowledge/mental ability, often in art, music or maths. It is often accompanied by impaired intellectual function or autism or both


Examples include:


Kim Peek (inspired the character ‘Raymond’ in 'Rain Man' ) has read some 12,000 books and remembers everything about them. Known as "Kimputer," hereads two pages at once - his left eye reads the left page, and his right eye reads the right page. It takes him about 3 seconds to read through two pages - and he remember everything on them. He can recall facts and trivia from 15 subject areas from history to geography to sports. Tell him a date, and Kim can tell you what day of the week it is. He also remembers every music he has ever heard.

Leslie Lemke at the age of 16 woke one night and started playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. flawlessly after no classical music training and just hearing it just once earlier on the television. From then on, Leslie began playing all styles of music from ragtime to classical. Like the Tchaikovsky piece, he only has to hear the music once in order to play it again perfectly.

Alonzo Clemens can't feed himself or tie his shoelaces, but he can sculpt. After seeing only a fleeting image of an animal on a TV screen, Alonzo could sculpt a perfect 3D figure of it, correct in each and every detail right down to the muscle fibres.

Stephen Wiltshire has a particularly striking talent: he can draw an accurate and detailed landscape of a city after seeing it just once! He drew a 10 metre long panorama of Tokyo following a short helicopter ride.

Ellen Boudreaux is a blind autistic savant with exceptional musical abilities. She can play music perfectly after hearing it just once

Daniel Tammet is a highly functioning autistic savant with exceptional mathematical and language abilities.





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