A Good Memory Is Essential For Your Life
Memory is the ability to register, store, hold and retrieve new information. Important storage processes are involved in the registering and holding of new information and the product of their operation are structures named memory traces. However, knowing a new fact and having created a memory trace for it does not guarantee the successful retrieval of that fact in times of need. For example, although you may know the name for the main road that leads to your street, it may escape you just as you are giving instructions on how to reach your home. This is because the manipulation of information in memory also requires important search and retrieval processes.
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The temporary retention of information: Short-Term and Working Memory
You are reading a text book to prepare for an examination. At the same time, you are listening to the radio. Suddenly the broadcast is interrupted and the winning number in a lottery you have entered is presented. The number has nine digits (8-1-4-6-8-3-2-7-3) and it is read in an even, steady voice. If you do not have a pen you have a problem: there are too many digits (or chunks) and the number is beyond temporary memory capacity. Adult capacity for temporary retention is widely considered to be in the range of 5 to 9 digits. Temporary retention is also known as short-term memory.
You decide to remember the number as three larger whole numbers 814; 283 and 273. This is the strategy of chunking. After information is chunked it can be repeated more accurately and more easily. This kind of repetition is called rehearsal. Chunking and rehearsal are the most widely used strategies for recall.
You will want to retain the number for a few seconds, only until you can compare it to the number on your lottery ticket. Therefore, you will probably encode or register the information in an auditory way (auditory short-term memory). In other circumstances you might need to encode information visually, for example if you want to compare the shape of a building you have just seen with a picture of the same building in a book you are holding (visual short-term memory).
Temporary held information or information held in short-term memory can be lost (different from memory loss which is a major issue as we age). If you have not been able to rehearse it, the information will decay. Information will also decay if there was interference. For example, you were also required to recall comparable information such as a telephone number, or in the case of the building, the shape of another building in the same street.
Temporary retention differs from long lasting retention in three important ways: it is of brief duration, it is not coded by its meaning and it decays with interference.
A key aspect of temporary retention is the ability to add other previously gained information into conscious awareness and to manipulate them. For example, if, after comparing the number you rehearsed with the number on your ticket, you find out that you own a winning lottery ticket, you will now bring into conscious awareness the actions you must carry out in order to receive the lottery prize. This is the working memory system. Working memory is a key aspect of how we deal with temporarily retained information. We usually use temporarily retained information in combination with other knowledge we have to carry out a future action. It is working memory that allows us to plan ahead and to create information combinations that are always new and unique. Because each of us brings different information into conscious awareness, the outcomes of our working memory processes are different for different individuals. They are the product of "real-time thinking", so that working memory, although it deals with temporary retention, is more like a higher-order form of fluid intelligence.
The long-term or permanent retention of new information
Everything we can do accurately and rapidly is stored in long-term memory or permanent memory. Our knowledge can be stored as episodic memory a form of memory that preserves a sequence of events in the order in which they have happened. Episodic memory has the feeling of a story: "This was the day we went mountain climbing and got caught in a storm." Alternately, our knowledge can be stored in semantic memory, the memory for knowledge and meaning. It is the "expert" conceptual knowledge we have developed. For example, a chess master player can easily discuss or write about the moves and strategies that make for a successful game, while an auto mechanic will easily converse about the best functioning carburetors. The expertise on which semantic memory rests involves a vast number of interrelated concepts, the semantic network. Some of those concepts have names (queen, knight) but others are abstract insights and do not.
How is new information remembered? How is it placed in permanent memory? Some retention processes are automatic: we automatically analyze the information coming in, sometimes auditorily, sometimes visually but also using our other senses. This is a procedure we routinely engage in when we encounter new information, to perceive and attend. These automatic processes may aid in perception and recognition as well as in reconstructing events but are usually not sufficient to guarantee successful permanent retention of new information.
In general, mere exposure to the new information, or rote memory, will not suffice and studies show that new information is better recalled if individuals actively search for (and find) strategies to organize the information into some coherent, meaningful structure. One such strategy is mediation which relates the new information to known old information. For example, when trying to recall the date for the French Revolution, Peter used his knowledge of the number sequence. Peter thought "1 stands for 1000, and needs not be recalled. I will remember 7,8,9 as a sequence". Another strategy is imagery or representing the new information in a visual form. Extensive research supports the use of both mediation and imagery to facilitate long-term retention of new information.
New information is registered and held in memory, leaving diverse kinds of modality-specific traces (auditory, visual, olfactory and other). But, how is information retrieved from long-term or permanent memory? For example, how do you retrieve your grocery list from memory? It appears that we do not locate the list in our minds and read it off, but often engage in reconstruction processes that operate based on the availability of some key information (for example, the ingredients for the chocolate cake and meat or fish for dinner). Other processes involve recognition (for example, matching the shape of a letter to its name) or recall (dialing your best friend's number, which you remembered using chunking and rehearsal).
That's why taking care of your memory through memory training is important. Do not wait for memory loss to look for memory games. Start your cognitive assessment and memory exercises today in order to keep your brain in top shape!