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Types of Memory: How Our Brain’s Storage Works

Types of Memory

The human brain is an amazing machine, capable of performing tasks far beyond the reach of even the most advanced supercomputers, although at a somewhat slower pace:) We can solve complex equations, create wonderful poems, discover analogies and patterns, and even generate completely new concepts that never existed before.

As we know, every computer needs storage to keep data and operate with it. There are different types of storage: ultra-fast processor cache, RAM, and SSD, which can retain data for years.

Our brain works in much the same way: it requires some kind of storage to function properly, which we call ‘memory.’ Similar to computer storage, our memory also has various types and serves different functions.

Sounds interesting? Let’s take a look at the nuances of our memory in more detail.

How Memory Works

In general, our memory undergoes four basic stages when working with information:

Seems quite easy and logical, doesn’t it? But you may ask, ‘Why can’t we retrieve all the information we’ve ever encountered when we need it?’ That’s a million-dollar question! 🙂

The reason is that our brain tends to forget information it deems irrelevant or unimportant in order to optimize its resources. This selective forgetting allows us to focus on what truly matters, preventing us from becoming overwhelmed by a constant influx of data. At he same time, we are unable to directly instruct our brain to remember specific information that we need for sure.

You can learn more about forgetting mechanisms in our Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve article. Moving forward, let’s discuss the various types of memory our brain operates.

Memory Types

Various classifications of memory types exist among researchers. They have identified different memory systems and subsystems, each serving specific purposes.

We remember facts, experiences, skills, and emotions differently, and these distinctions have led researchers to categorize memory based on content, duration, and accessibility.

Here are the five most commonly used memory types:

Next, we will explore each of these types in more detail.

Sensory Memory

Everything we see through our eyes, hear with our ears, and feel with our bodies enters our sensory memory. Taking into account that most data comes to our brain from our sensory channels, we can imagine how important this type of memory is.

There are 3 main subtypes of sensory memory:

However, sensory memory usually doesn’t keep data for a long time. This information transitions into short-term and long-term memory for processing and storage.

Working Memory

Depending on classifications, working memory is sometimes referred to as a type of short-term memory, as it stores information for a brief duration. However, we can distinguish working memory from short-term memory by its primary function.

Working memory holds small pieces of data while our brain actively manipulates it.

For example, when we calculate 25 + 13 + 48, our brain retains the number 38 (the result of 25 + 13) in working memory. Similarly, if we are asked to name the fifth letter of the alphabet, we count A, B, C, D, and E, keeping the letter E in working memory as well.

Similar to sensory memory, our working memory serves as temporary storage and does not retain information for an extended period. You will likely forget the number 38 from the example above shortly after completing the calculations.

Now, let’s continue our journey and move to Short-Term memory.

Short-Term Memory

The place where data is stored for several seconds up to 30 seconds is called short-term memory. Our brain uses short-term memory continuously during our regular activities.

When you hear an announcement over the station’s loudspeaker, it’s stored in your short-term memory. Likewise, short movie scenes you see or book sentences you read are also filled in your short-term memory.

This type of memory is not designed to store data for an extended period, so the likelihood that you will quickly forget this announcement or sentence is quite high.

But we can instruct our brain to retain this data temporarily by continuously repeating it. For instance, when somebody provides a phone number, you repeat it several times while entering it into your phone’s Contacts app. This enables us to utilize our short-term memory for more than 30 seconds, facilitating the successful completion of the task.

After storing the phone number in your smartphone, you will likely forget it shortly. To prevent forgetting, you can use one of the memorization techniques, such as Spaced Repetition, to store the information in your long-term memory for a more extended period of time.

Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory is probably the type of memory we most often try to befriend. When we prepare for exams, study foreign languages, or attempt to memorize key points for an upcoming presentation next week, we rely on our long-term memory.

The importance of long-term memory in our lives cannot be overstated. It preserves our childhood memories, the entire school curriculum, our professional experiences, and even the intricate plot of a series like Game of Thrones, all stored in our brain’s permanent repository of long-term memory.

Long-term memory is typically divided into additional subtypes:

Explicit long-term memory.

Explicit long-term memory is utilized when we consciously recall and retrieve specific information, such as mathematical formulas, memories from your best friend’s wedding, or historical events you learned in school, among others.

Explicit long-term memory can be further categorized into Semantic Memory (comprising general knowledge, facts, and concepts) and Episodic Memory (encompassing personal experiences and events, often associated with specific times and places), though we won’t delve deeply into these distinctions in this article.

Implicit long-term memory.

Implicit long-term memory, in contrast, involves the unconscious or automatic retention and retrieval of information. Skills like walking, riding a bike, or swimming are stored in implicit long-term memory.

It also stores our subconscious responses to familiar stimuli, such as not crossing the street on a red light without consciously thinking about it or holding the door for someone walking behind us.

Long-term memory (at least, explicit) isn’t designed to retain every piece of information we encounter. Our brains determine what to store for future use based on the information’s importance and what should be forgotten to conserve resources. That’s why learning something new and retaining that knowledge for a lifetime can be challenging at times.

Luckily, as mentioned earlier and to be discussed later, several specific learning techniques can guide our brains to store essential information in long-term memory, making it easily accessible when needed.

Prospective Memory

The last type of memory we’d like to mention (which doesn’t diminish its importance) is Prospective Memory. This type of memory involves remembering our past intentions or planned actions that should be carried out in the future.

Consider these examples:

  • We create a list of products we need to make lasagna for dinner. When we get into the grocery store, we recall that we need to buy these products.
  • You schedule an appointment with your business partner. Tomorrow, you will remember to meet them at 11 a.m. in a cafe down the street.
  • We remember to pick up our children from school in the afternoon, visit the dentist once a year, or meet up with friends on weekends.

All the scenarios mentioned above are made possible by our prospective memory. As we can observe, it would be extremely challenging to lead our everyday lives without this type of memory.

How to Improve Memorization?

Now we know that our memory is not as simple as we might have thought before. And we understand the path new knowledge has to traverse before reaching our brain’s long-term memory.

But the main question remains the same: How can we study things more efficiently and remember new knowledge for a lifetime? Is there a magical way to “hack” your memory? Here are several pieces of advice.

Know Your Goals

First, you should understand the goals of your learning. What are you trying to remember? Do you have any deadlines? What kind of material are you studying?

It’s better to be realistic here. While you can easily remember 5-10 technical terms the night before the exam, you won’t be able to fully grasp the entire study book with just one reading. Similarly, it’s quite challenging to remember, let’s say, 20-30 foreign words all at once without revisiting them over time.

It may sound quite obvious, but the best thing you can do is to plan your study process beforehand, considering the quantity and complexity of the material you need to remember. This approach will enable your memory to function at a natural pace and store information more effectively.

Be In Shape

Next, ensure that your brain is prepared to accept and retain new information. The most common advice you’ll come across in this regard is to “get better sleep, and we can’t agree more. The quantity and quality of your sleep significantly affect your brain’s functionality, so be sure to allocate 7-9 hours of rest to yourself every day.

Another important factor to consider is that individuals have varying “peak efficiency periods” – specific times of the day when they are biologically inclined to function at their best. Some are early birds, while others are night owls, and we assume you already know when your most efficient time is. Therefore, try to schedule your study sessions during that period to increase your chances of successful memorization.

And one more quick tip: evaluate your mental state. Even if you’ve enjoyed 9 hours of restful sleep and you’re in your most productive time period, you may still find yourself unprepared for mental work. Your mind might be elsewhere, unwilling to absorb any information you attempt to feed it.

What can be done in such a situation? Simply try to reboot your brain with 5-10 minutes of physical activity. Perform 10-20 squats or push-ups, take a brief stroll around your neighborhood, or engage in any activity of your choice that doesn’t burden your mind. If possible, you can even take a short nap. The objective here is to ‘recharge’ your brain and ready it for work.

Use the Right Tools and Methods

There are at least two different approaches to learning new things:

Which one do you prefer? 🙂

Opting for time-tested learning methodologies instead of spontaneous, unprepared learning sessions can provide a significant advantage. When you plan what, when, and how to learn, your study process becomes more predictable, and your new knowledge is more likely to be securely retained in your long-term memory.

There are a lot of learning techniques out there:

In most cases, we recommend the Leitner System as the most universal and versatile method for studying various types of materials. At the core of this system lies the concept of distributing learning materials across flashcards and repeating them over time to enhance memorization. You can read more about the Leitner System here.

No matter which specific learning system you choose, rest assured that it will save you a lot of time and make the memorization process more enjoyable and efficient.

In conclusion

Our brains are incredibly complex, and our memory is a crucial part of how we function. Without the ability to remember everyday things, it would be impossible for us to live our lives, do simple tasks, or grow as individuals.

Learning how our memory naturally works helps us use it better when we’re learning new things. By using special techniques and methods, we can remember more in less time.

Oh, are you still reading this boring article? It’s time to learn something new! 🙂

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