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How Memory Works

“I have a bad memory.” This is one of my least favorite phrases in the English language. I have to remind students every day that they do not have a bad memory. They just are not using the right system to lock information into long-term memory.

The brain is like a computer. In fact, it is the most powerful, intricate, amazing computer in the universe. This giant mess of dendritic pathways requires more energy than anything else in the body. And it is capable of learning almost anything under the sun. That’s why I laugh when students say they have a bad memory. With the right system, students can memorize anything.

So, what is the “right” system? The answer, as usual, depends on the application. For example, students might benefit from using mnemonics with history vocabulary but prefer the Loci method for learning the elements of the periodic table. However, it is extremely important for students to recognize that good systems for memorizing information share certain principles. Application changes, but principles remain the same. First, let’s take a look at how memory works.

Memory occurs in three basic stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval (recall).

  1. Encoding. Encoding is the process through which information is learned. In other words, this is how information is learned. Better encoding equals better storage. It’s kind of like packing for a long trip. The more efficient you are with space, and the better you fold your clothes, the better prepared you are for the trip. If you don’t pack correctly, you end up with less supplies and wrinkled clothes. Similarly, the better you grasp a concept during class, the easier it is to store it in long-term memory. Information can be encoded in four different ways: (1) Visual (how something looks); (2) acoustic (how something sounds); (3) semantic (what something means); and (4) tactile encoding (how something feels). How you learn information affects how it is encoded. Better encoding improves both storage and recall, as we’ll discuss in the following paragraphs.

  • Storage. Storage refers to how, where, and how long information is retained. There are two types of memory: short-term and long-term memory. According to a study by Roediger and McDermott done in 1995, information is first stored in short-term memory. Then, if the brain sees a need for it, the information is moved to long-term memory. Most scientists agree that short-term memory only lasts between 15 and 30 seconds and is limited to seven (plus or minus two) units of information. Yes, you read that correctly. Short-term memory only lasts 30 seconds and can only handle up to nine units of information. Long-term memory, on the other hand, has outstanding storage capacity. When information is in long-term storage, and can last forever. Semantic memory has the best shot of making it to long-term storage, but studies show that visually encoded information often makes it to long-term storage as well.

  • Recall. Retrieval or recall is the process through which individuals access stored information. This is the most crucial aspect of memory for students. Better recall often means better grades. Information in short-term storage and information in long-term storage are recalled using different methods. Just like your favorite t-shirt is easier to get to in your closet than your heavy winter coat, information that is recalled more often is easier to reach. The truth is all stored memories are accessible, but students need the right key to access the right information. Short-term memory is recalled in the chronological order in which it was stored. For example, if you try to memorize a fifteen-digit list of random numbers, it will be easier to recall the first four or five because they were encoded before the last ten. Long-term memory, on the other hand, needs to be retrieved through an association. An association is simply a link between new information and information you already know. This is the key to perfect (or near-perfect) recall: to learn new information, you must relate it to something you already know.

Contrary to popular belief, memory does not work like a filing cabinet. Instead, it works like a gatekeeper. Information comes in, the brain encodes, and searches for similar information in its storage system. If it finds a match, then that information is stored successfully with another associated piece of previous information. If the brain cannot find a match, then the information gets tossed out. This is the foundation of what is called “Hebb’s law”. Neurons that fire together wire together. When new information comes in, you must activate the neurons that store something you already know. Thus, the tricky business of recall depends on the strength of one’s associations.

There are many ways to create better associations for long-term memory storage, but most of them boil down to three essential components: place, emotion, and imagery. The best associations include one of these three tools. Students should use place, emotion, and imagery to lock essential concepts in their long-term memory. For example, the standard units for pressure are essential to succeeding in a high school chemistry class. Here is the equation that students need to memorize:

1 atm= 760 mm Hg = 760 torr = 101.3 Kpa

Some students simply re-write this formula until they have it down. While this works, it is an extremely inefficient and unreliable way of memorizing. Instead, students should use place, emotion, and imagery to put this information in long-term storage. Here’s how we do it:

  1. Break the information up into manageable chunks. For this example, separate the numbers from the units. Also, use hyphens to create divisions between the numbers.

Set 1: 17-60-7-60-10-1.3

Set 2: ATM-mmHg-Torr-Kpa

  • Build associations using place, imagery, and emotion, creating a link between this new information and information you already know. Numbers can easily be turned into pictures. For example, 17 equals Zac Efron because of his movie 17 Again. 60 equals Dallas Keuchel because the bearded former Astro wore this jersey number. Students should create pictures for each of the items above and then arrange them in a sequential order, like a story. Try to make the story funny and centered around a location you know well. Here’s an example for the information above:

Set 1: Zac Efron (17) and Dallas Keuchel (60) are playing slot machines (7), which are shaped like Dallas Keuchel (60) bobbleheads in the middle of Minute Maid Park. After playing for ten hours straight (10), they finally hit the jackpot of 1.3 million dollars (1.3)

Set 2: You stopped at the ATM (ATM) so you could get money out to buy millions and millions of mercury thermometers (mm=millions and millions, Hg= symbol for mercury). On your walk back home, the bag tore open (torr), but Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol (Kpa) helped you pick them up.

  • Employ the testing and spacing effect. Testing forces you to recall the information, which strengthens the neural pathways for recall. Spacing out the testing sessions eliminates the “repetition effect”, which is when you do something ten times in a row once and think you have mastered it. Long-term memory requires long-term recall. Just like going to the gym once a month for four hours is not as effective as going for thirty minutes twice a week for the entire month, spaced testing creates better results than one-hit wonders. Once again, cramming does not work. Good things take time.

Remember (pun intended), that the key to a good memory is a good system. By understanding how memory works, students can conquer their exams with ease. Does your student need help improving your academic systems for studying, organization, and time management?  Our academic coaches can help. Visit our services page to apply.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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