I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the human mind is the most complex thing on the planet. If working at full potential, it can be more powerful than the smartest computer we have ever built. If working at full potential, it can lead us to answer questions that have haunted mankind for centuries. It can open a new world for us. But we don’t use it at full potential do we?
One of the very intriguing functions of our brain is the power to store memories. But how does it all work? How does it automatically store a memory and help us retrieve it when we need it? Why do we fail to recall things sometimes? Let’s find out.
Step One: Memory encoding
This is the first step when we begin to create a new memory. It allows our brain to convert our interest into an idea that is tucked away in our brain and then recalled later as a short-term, or a long-term memory.
Step two: Memory consolidation and storage
This is the part where the memory we just stored is stabilised in our head. Learning something new needs consolidation just so that we don’t end up forgetting it. Take studies, for example. Perhaps the main reason I was so bad in academics (apart from the fact that I wasn’t interested much) was because I would spend long hours mugging things up. Which, as it turns out, is the reason I would forget some important bits of my course. One should always have two study sessions with time to relax in between sessions. Known as spaced learning, it’ll help you learn more in half the time. When we put long hours studying, our mind zones out every now and then, therefore losing the ability to learn new things. Now I know why I would blank out about the things I had learnt the night before school exams. Another great tip? Read out loud (or even whisper) the things you’re reading, it helps to memorise things better.
Step three: Memory retrieval
Simply, memory retrieval means accessing the information that’s been stored in our head. Since we were talking about exams, it’s the point when we start reminding ourselves of the answers we need to write on the paper.
There are four ways to retrieve information from our brain:
In this type of memory retrieval, we do not need to be told or clued in on the context of the information. Like, fill in the blanks. The answer just comes to us as soon as we read the sentence.
This method is more complex than recall. Here we need to reconstruct a certain part of the memory or use narratives and clues. Let’s say we need to write about the life of a Mughal emperor. We might not remember everything about his life, but the part we do know helps us reconstruct the remaining information based on the partial memories.
In this type of memory retrieval, we need to go through the information all over again to remember what we forgot. Remembering the answer while filling out multiple choice questions can be an example of recognition.
This one involves relearning what we learnt before all over again. This often makes it easier for us to remember complex things and improves our memory. The five minutes we use to mug up last minute things before the exam could be an example.
Then there are issues too. You see, the aforementioned techniques do not always work. Like the time when you completely black out while writing a paper. Or the time when you know something well but you fail to recollect? It’s right there, on the tip of the tongue but you don’t know the word.
While I agree that these instances are annoying especially when you need the information urgently, research has shown that these instances are quite common in our lives. In fact, younger individuals face a scenario like this at least once every week, while it’s more common among adults who typically forget a thing or two at least three to four times a week.
The memories are there, kept safely, but we just fail to access them. Many times, this is because we lack the retrieval cues required to trigger the memory. The other reason could be that the information we learnt never really got stored in our memory, we didn’t focus enough while trying to memorise something.