What is Memory? | Models of Memory | Types of Memory | Anatomy of Memory | Levels of Processing | Five Systems of Memory | Five Systems Review | Stages of Memory Functioning | Remember Your Senses


Memory is More Complex Than You Might Think:

Memory is a process that is governed by multiple systems throughout the brain. The complex intricacies of memory functioning are not completely understood, although there are many models that have been proposed. This chapter is devoted to teaching you how memory functions. By having a working knowledge of how memory works you will be in a better position to plan strategies to improve memory.

What Is Memory?

Memory is a mental process of storage and retrieval of information and experience. Information makes its way into your memory through your senses. It is then processed by multiple systems throughout your brain and stored for later use (Parente and Stapleton 1993).

For memory to properly function, information must be correctly received through the senses. Memory is stored (encoded) according to many different themes. It is stored according to time (when something happened), category (animal, plant, mineral), function (a hammer is used to pound nails), and many others. These different types of memory represent individual memory systems within the brain. Once information is stored correctly within one or more of these systems it can later be retrieved. The ease and accuracy of retrieval depends upon the effectiveness of the initial encoding. Retrieval is also dependent upon what file you consciously decide to file newly learned information under. In other words, you can choose which file in your mind to store a particular memory in. You can even decide to place a memory in a folder that already exists. This is called association.

Models of Memory:
There are many models of memory that have been proposed through the years. We will review three that pertain directly to the RARE-DREAM model. These include the Atkinson and Shiffrin Model, Cognitive Efforts Model, and the Depth of Processing Model.

Atkinson and Shiffrin Model of Memory:
Common among many models of memory is the view of memory as a system of operations that function through different phases in time (Laaksonen 1994). A generally accepted model of memory is the one proposed by Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968). In this model, the structural components of memory consist of what is called a “sensory store” (where data picked up by your senses is temporarily stored), short-term memory, and long-term memory. Information is first acquired through the senses, where it then enters the short-term memory store. Encoding may be mediated by how many senses were involved during the processing of the information while contained in short-term memory. Once the information enters the short-term memory it can either be forgotten or further processed and moved into long-term memory where a permanent record is created. The term “working memory” is often used in place of the term short-term memory because information is typically held at this level to fulfill a work function and then either forgotten or further consolidated into long-term memory. For instance, when you look up a number in the phone book, the number is held in working (short-term) memory until the number has been dialed. Once the work of dialing is accomplished, the numbers are forgotten. If it’s necessary that you retain this number, you may then rehearse the number to properly encode it in your long-term memory. The next model of memory describes memory from the perspective of effort.

Cognitive Effort Model of Memory:
The cognitive effort model is a dynamic model stating that the critical variable for reliable memory is related to the degree of cognitive effort used when processing the information. With increased cognitive effort, more distinct and durable memories are established. According to this model, the degree of motivation expended in establishing a memory determines the level of success of memory consolidation and later retrieval. In essence, the harder you try to encode a memory the more successful you will be. Let us caution you here that this effort must first be correctly placed in order to be effective. The final model of memory that we will introduce is the depth of processing model.

Depth of Processing Model:

A related perspective of memory functioning is the “depth of processing” concept supported by Craik and Lockhart (1972). This concept holds that effective memory is contingent upon the kinds of operations carried out while encoding information, and that retention is determined by the characteristics that are emphasized during the initial encoding process (Reed 1992). According to this model, information that is encoded in a more personally meaningful way is more likely to be recalled. There is evidence to suggest that older adults are less likely to spontaneously apply these deeper levels of processing to their memory functioning (Zarit et al. 1981). In accordance with depth of processing concepts, recent approaches in memory training have targeted processes that occur during the encoding stage of memory (Smith 1980).

In combining the three models, we can surmise that effective memory functioning is dependent upon adequate transfer of information from your senses into working memory. While the information is contained in working memory it is elaborated upon and tagged with meaningful retrieval cues before it is transferred for permanent storage into long-term memory. Now that we’ve examined models of memory, let’s take a look at different types of memory.

Types of Memory:

Ogrocki and Welsh-Bohmer identify two types of memory. The first type is learned experiences that are accessible through conscious awareness. The second type is automatic changes in behavior that are at an unconscious level (Ogrocki and Welsh-Bohmer 2000, 19). Thinking of memory in terms of unconscious or automatic processes and conscious or planned mechanisms serves as a good initial conceptualization. For our purposes, we will refer to these as “declarative” and “nondeclarative” memory, respectively.

Declarative Memory:

Declarative memory is conscious memory. It is knowledge of facts and events that includes both episodic (time-related data of past experiences) and semantic (fact-related) data. Declarative memory stores information about facts (who, what, when, where) and the relationship between them.

Other terms that you may hear associated with declarative memory might include “explicit memory” or “cognitive memory.” This is what most people are referring to when they state that they begin to notice lapses in their memory functioning. It is also the type of memory most affected by depression.

Nondeclarative Memory:

Nondeclarative memory is memory that cannot be accessed consciously. It includes motor learning, habits, and conditioning. Nondeclarative memory includes the skills achieved through repetitious exposure, such as driving a car or riding a bike. Nondeclarative memory involves multiple senses and systems and utilizes multiple motor and cognitive pathways in its execution. Other names for nondeclarative memory include “implicit memory,” “dispositional memory,” or “nonconscious memory.”

An example of nondeclarative memory is the slow process of learning the skilled movements to play the piano. Other examples include different types of nonconscious memory, priming, and conditioning. Nondeclarative memory is your intuition and is often represented in cartoons by the little devil sitting on one shoulder whispering in one ear and an angel sitting on the other shoulder whispering in the other ear. This is a primitive memory system and is used by both humans and animals. This system has been well proven over time, is very well established, and is an excellent vehicle on which to mount improved memory functioning.

Take a moment and describe out loud to yourself how you would tie your shoe or ride a bicycle. Name all the specific steps in singing a song or painting a picture. Explain déjà vu. If you struggled (and we expect you did), it is because essentially you were trying to utilize declarative memory functions to verbally describe nondeclarative memory experiences. In contrast, what makes the game of charades so challenging to people is that the game involves using nondeclarative processes to describe declarative concepts. This further evidences just how intricate and, frankly, awesome your memory is. The next time you feel demoralized about your memory, remember how complex the concept of memory is. Think about a nondeclarative skill that you have mastered, such as your ability to play a musical instrument, knit, or even ride a bike.

Anatomy of Memory:

There are multiple systems and areas of the brain associated with memory functioning. The area of the brain called the hippocampus (located in the temporal lobe) is generally considered the central processing unit for memory. Other areas involved in memory functioning include the areas called medial temporal lobes and the diencephalon. Today it is widely recognized by neuroscientists that there is not one central area of the brain solely responsible for memory. Memory is stored and processed throughout the brain. What this means is that the idea of “your memory” going bad is not the same as your heart or kidneys going bad. This makes the function of memory more resilient than if it was contained within a single area of the brain. In other words, both the strength and proper utilization of memory lies in diversity.

Different memory functions have been localized to distinct areas of the brain. Motor memories (like limb position, knowledge of personal space) is stored near the motor processing areas of your brain. Sensory memories are stored near sensory processing areas of your brain. Different regions of the brain are wired together and work in conjunction. For example, pain sensory receptors detect that your hand is getting burned. This message is processed within the spinal cord and memory of the hand’s position in space is quickly detected and adjusted to prevent further damage from heat. Given this wonderfully complex pattern of memory functioning, we do not have to concern ourselves with a single entity of memory. We can create tailored methods to encode and retrieve memories dependent upon the type of memory and where we choose to store it.

For example, let’s pair a paperclip with the smell of sweat. By that single thought you have created new pathways to store new properties of a paperclip and have associated the idea of a paperclip with sweat. Now for encoding purposes picture yourself running through a hot stationery store looking for paperclips. Again, new pathways are created and the odds of recalling those items are increased. Now imagine that your goal is to remember to stop at the store on the way home and purchase some paperclips. By taking a moment and creating this unique scenario of running through a hot store, looking for paperclips and sweating, the episodic and semantic elements applied to the encoding will greatly enhance your ability to execute the errand.

Levels of Processing:

You now see the importance in both where information is processed and how it is processed. Thereby you can begin to see how important it is for information to be processed at different stages and at progressively deeper levels to assure sound memory functioning. You will remember to pick up paperclips if you run this scenario through your memory for smell, as well as through your action or motor memory. This concept of encoding information at multiple levels is a central theme in the remaining “R and E” of the RARE techniques you will learn.

The Five Systems of Memory:

In this next section, we will outline the five systems of memory. These include working memory, semantic memory, episodic memory, procedural memory, and perceptual memory. Remember, according to our model these different systems work together and function according to time and purpose. Don’t get these confused with the two types of memory presented at the beginning of this chapter (declarative or conscious memory and nondeclarative or unconscious memory). By learning about these different memory systems, we can better utilize them for retention and recall. We will start our presentation with working memory.

Working Memory:

Working memory (which could also be called “memory for now”) contains all that we are conscious of and working on right now. Information is held long enough to make a decision and then either is lost or sent on to storage for later use. If it’s transferred to form a memory for later use, it becomes long-term memory. Information that you are thinking about right now (reading about working memory) includes data currently entering your senses, as well as related memories associated from long-term memory stores that help you make sense of what you’re reading. Working memory (also called short-term memory) is transient in nature and, unless processed and stored in long-term memory, will be lost after it is used. The phase in which working or short-term memory is transferred into long-term memory is called memory consolidation. This storage function allows us to bring information online for comparisons to other information contained in long-term memory, thereby enhancing problem solving and comprehension. Other terms associated with working memory include immediate memory, active memory, and primary memory.

Working memory has three major subsystems that work in unison (Gathercole and Baddeley 1993). These are the central executive, the visuo-spatial sketchpad, and the phonological loop. The central executive serves to regulate and manage information contained in working memory. It also serves to regulate and interact with functions of long-term memory. The visuo-spatial sketchpad regulates visual and spatial information and processes this information for immediate use. Finally, the phonological loop translates information into verbal code and is central in allowing us to read, converse, and transfer our world into verbal representations. It is our verbal information processor or our mind’s “ear.”

Memory Tip: Context-Dependent Memory:

Context-dependent memory involves the recall of information in the same or similar place or situation as when the memory was formed. The theory of context-dependent memory assers that memories will be more easily recalled if you are within the same context as when the memory was established. Have you ever walked into a room and forgot what you went in there for? Frequently you will have to go back to where you started from to remember what you were doing. This is an example of context dependent memory, which can be used to your advantage. If you find that you can’t remember something, go back to where the memory was formed. If that is not possible, try to create similar feelings or sensations to those that initially surrounded the encoding of the information. You may find that the information you are trying to remember will be much more accessible.

Now we will continue our review of memory systems with long-term memory.

Long-Term Memory:

This is what most people call “memory” and it can be also considered “memory for later.” It is the stored, permanent information that we have committed to memory to be retrieved for later use. This is the area where we notice a lapse when we have a name on the tip of our tongue and can’t seem to get it out. Long-term memory is made up of both semantic and episodic memory (Tulving 1972). Long-term memory is not actually a system of memory per se, but rather an abstract term used to globally denote more permanently stored information.

Semantic Memory:
Semantic memory includes all of the general information that we have accumulated in our long-term memories that is not linked by time or place. It involves data related to who, what, and why.

Episodic Memory:
This system is in charge of the information associated with the time and place at which you learned the information and formed the memory. This is the system that is utilized in the preceding memory tip on context-dependent memory. The episodic memory acts as the memory for when and where. For example, remembering that you had a salad for dinner last night is an episodic memory (when). Remembering that lettuce is a plant that matures through the process of photosynthesis is a semantic memory (who, what, or why).

Procedural Memory:

The procedural system stores information on how to do something (like how to change the spark plugs in your car, what tools to use, which way to turn the spark plugs in order to remove them, and how much pressure to apply for optimal performance). Procedural memory holds our knowledge about our skills and habits. This knowledge base represents our life’s work. It is the information that was acquired slowly through continued practice. Think of someone on television who has portrayed an amnesic. If portrayed accurately, the person lost the memory of who he or she is (explicit memory), not the memory of how to do things (procedural memory). The person has no recollection of any personal history, but can still change a spark plug, if the knowledge was previously learned. The differences between these two components of long-term memory, illustrated by the amnesic who has no memory of personal events but maintains knowledge of procedural artifacts, highlights the complexity and dynamic nature of memory functioning.

Perceptual Memory:

Perceptual memory serves to identify objects and the structure of language. It is also a knowledge base for evaluating overall patterns of larger groups of data. It provides the context for the content of memory and is intuitive in nature, not involving the conceptual or comparative logic utilized in other memory systems. It sees the forest and not the individual trees. The perceptual memory system is the system that allows people to be “geniuses” or gifted artists or musicians. Through this memory system, we recognize themes and are able to use intuition in order to process larger patterns of data. There are separate systems within the perceptual memory system that mediate visual and auditory information.

The perceptual memory defines a musician, a world-class chef, or even a skilled mechanic. They have built up a large knowledge base of complex patterns related to their expertise and can thus process the information using these patterns. They become intuitive in processing these patterns and can predict where the pattern is heading. Recognizing your strengths can greatly enhance your memory functioning. You will be processing the same amount of information in your working memory, but the information processed will be in chunks rather than individual bits. If you can process the information in patterns, you can process more information quicker and more efficiently. This is the optimal use of perceptual memory.

5 Types of Memory

  1. Working Memory – aka short term memory
  • Long-term Memory – stored, permanent information
  • Semantic Memory – general information involving who, what and why
  • Episodic Memory – information associated with time and place where memory was formed
  • Procedural Memory – stores information on how to do something
  • Perceptual Memory – serves to identify objects and structure of language

Memory Tip: Better Recall:

Episodic and procedural memory can be useful in recall. If you are having difficulty getting access to something that you wish to remember, try to remember other things that were occurring during that time frame. What else happened that day? What were you wearing? Who were you with? What were you doing? Although these questions represent different memory systems, they are interconnected. Thinking about the desired memory from alternative perspectives can help to activate other related memory systems that are linked to that memory. This in turn will activate the system that holds the memory that you wish to recall.

Five Systems of Memory—A Review:

The five systems of memory again are:
1. Working Memory
2. Semantic Memory
3. Episodic Memory
4. Procedural Memory
5. Perceptual Memory
(Episodic and semantic memory together make up long-term memory)
The names of these systems can be remembered by thinking of the acronym WEPPS.
W = working memory, E = episodic memory, P = perceptual memory, P = procedural memory, and S = semantic memory. Remember these, because we will ask you about them later.

Since we are targeting your memory at multiple stages of functioning, we will now briefly cover the basic stages of memory functioning.

Stages of Memory Functioning:
Memory works in three different stages: Encoding, storage, and retrieval.

  1. Encoding: Once we come in contact with information to be remembered our brains develop a “code,” which becomes a record of the experience. Our memory can be affected at this stage if the information is not coded in a way that makes it easy to recall when needed. For example, we may recognize someone in the office where we work, but outside of that environment we may have difficulty in recognizing him or her. This is because the face was coded in association with work and outside of that coding strategy the memory is not recognizable. We lose the context of the memory that is guided by our semantic memory system.
  2. Storage: This is the ability to hold and effectively store a memory. Rehearsal is one of the most important factors involved in retaining the information that we’ve been exposed to. Problems in this stage of memory often occur due to a lack of rehearsal.
  3. Retrieval: This refers to the ability to recall the memory needed. Once the information is successfully stored, it must be retrievable in order to be useful. For information to be retrieved, it first must be stored effectively. Once effectively stored, cues and reminders can help us then retrieve the information. Remembering that you need to pick up milk before coming home can easily be forgotten as you go through your daily routine. As you drive home and see a convenience store your memory is jogged and you remember the errand. Often it seems as if we have forgotten something even though it was successfully stored. We simply need help in retrieving the memory; we have to remember to recall.

The importance of paying attention to detail cannot be overemphasized. If we become bogged down with too much information and preoccupied with the stress of our daily routine it becomes increasingly more difficult to remember the things we need for later. That’s why relaxation is such an important component for effective memory. It is much more difficult to remember things if we add an emotional component of anxiety or depression. Also, it’s important to use any tricks or tools that seem to help you.

What is Memory:

Memory is a mental process of storage and retrieval of information and experience. 

Senses    Arrow    Storage (memory consolidation) =     MEMORY Arrow  Retrieval

    • Encoding –process of taking information from one’s environment through the senses then organizing and storing this information in the form of internal representations
    • Storage – ability to hold and effectively store a memory
    • Retrieval – ability to recall the needed memory

    Remember Your Senses:

    Your senses are the first step in storing a memory. If your senses are not appropriately picking up information to begin with, there is no way that you can form a memory. Your senses are mediated by your attentional capacity (how well you can pay attention). When you’re attending to information, your senses are alert and receptive to environmental information. If you’re inattentive, your senses are not picking up this information. As an example, if you’re not attending visually (your eyes are closed), then you’re not going to pick up any visual information around you. If you are not listening, then you won’t pick up any auditory information.

    We have presented memory in different ways. This is exactly what you have to do when you encode information. By looking at the data in different ways you can form better associations and memory traces within your brain and can choose a wider context from which to draw the data.

    Memory Systems
    What were those 5 memory systems?
    W =                                                                            
    E =                                                                              
    P =                                                                              
    P =                                                                              
    S =                                                                              

    Did the acronym help?

    Excerpts from “The Memory Workbook”, Mason, D.J; Kohn, M.; New Harbinger Publications

Copyright © 2003 - 2006, The Memory Doctor, LLC. All Rights Reserved.