Have you ever thought that you could be using your memory more effectively?
Lots of people complain that they have a poor memory, that their memory doesn’t work as well as it used to. Well, you have a fantastic memory – you just need to understand how it works. Just as a well-designed car can be badly driven, you can cause your memory to falter and stall.
Here is a brief maintenance checklist to help you tune up your memory.
Let’s look at the basic equipment. Your memory resides mostly in your brain, but also throughout your nervous system. Your hands and brain work together “remembering” how to touch type. Your feet and brain can drive a car without your having to think about it. You can play a musical instrument, swing at a golf ball, brush your teeth, and do thousands of actions because your brain and your body have learned and then remembered how to do these intricate movements.
Your memory operates on at least three levels – immediate, short-term, and long-term.
The immediate level handles an enormous amount of information, but each bit of information lasts for only three seconds or less. At this memory level, your brain is monitoring its world through what it sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches. Right now, as you are reading these words your immediate memory is dealing with all of the information flowing in through your five senses. What you may not realize is how rapidly your attention shifts at this level – sometimes in 1/100th of a second or less. If you do not understand this, you may think you have forgotten something, when in fact you never actually attended to it in the first place.
Attention is absolutely crucial at this level. Think about your conscious mind like a searchlight – what it shines on, you pay attention to. But while you are paying attention to one thing, you cannot attend to anything else. The searchlight lights a small area of focus, but everything else is in darkness. People talk about multi-tasking, but you cannot do two complex things at once, even though you may think you can. What you are doing is shifting your attention very rapidly, which then makes it difficult for you to use the full power of your memory and your mind.
For instance, many people complain that they forget names very easily. You have probably had the experience of just meeting somebody and within seconds of chatting to them, you realize that you have already “forgotten” their name. What probably happened is that you didn’t direct your attention to listening to the sound of the name as the person was saying it. You may have been attending to the person’s face, or clothing, or handshake, or even some internal instruction like “this is important, I must remember this name.” You can improve your memory of names by deliberately focusing on the sound of the person’s name at the moment the name is being said.
The Fantastic Long-Term Memory
Before we deal with the short-term level of memory, we need to understand the fantastic capacity of the long-term memory. Research indicates that your long-term memory has a limitless capacity. The more you have in your long-term memory, the more you can have. That is because your memory is a reminder and re-creation system, not a storage system.
We are very familiar with two memory storage systems, the filing cabinet and the computer. These two storage systems are very similar to each other, but they are nowhere near as efficient and flexible as your long-term memory.
To retrieve memory from a filing cabinet, you pull out a drawer, select a file, and find the memory you are looking for on a place on a page. A computer memory system works much the same way. The memory is located in a specific file in a specific directory and in order to retrieve it, you have to find that file.
Not so in your incredible long-term memory. Where is your memory of how to drive a car stored? In a place in your brain – say two inches in from your left ear. Of course not! Your memory of how to drive a car is recreated every time you turn on the ignition, engage the gear, and let off the brake. When was the last time you rode a bicycle? It could have been years ago, but if you get on a bicycle today, your brain and body would instantly recreate everything it has ever known about bicycle riding, and with only a wobble or two you would be peddling off down the road.
So, your memory is not like a filing cabinet, storing information in an exact place to be found and retrieved. It is a reminder and recreation system that you can work with much more effectively as you understand it better.
Another significant difference is space. In a filing cabinet or computer system, each bit of memory takes up a certain amount of space. For example, memory in a filing cabinet takes up space on a page, space in a file, space in a drawer, or in a directory. You can fill a filing cabinet or computer system with so much memory that it doesn’t function very well. If you want to add more memory to a filing cabinet or a computer system, you either have to discard some memory to free up space or add space by buying another filing cabinet or some more memory storage space for your computer.
Our human long-term memory does not take up space – if it did, we would have slightly bigger brains every year. You could tell at a glance how old somebody was by the size of their head!
The Limited Capacity of the Short-Term Memory
So why do we sometimes feel that our memories are overloaded or stuffed full? We feel that way because unlike the long-term memory, we have a surprisingly limited capacity in short-term memory, sometimes called the “working memory”. As American psychologist George Miller explained in 1956 in his classic paper called “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”, we can only hold about seven pieces of information in our short-term memory at any point in time. And if our short term memory is full, and something else takes our attention so that we add more information to our short term memory, then we lose some of the information that was in there. How many times have you walked smartly into another room to get something, only to find that when you get there, you have no idea what you are supposed to be picking up.?
Not only is our capacity limited at the short-term level, but the duration is relatively short too. Unlike our long-term memory – where most information is available to us over our lifetime – any item lodged in our short-term memory is only good for 24 to 48 hours. For instance, with relatively little thought you can probably remember quite clearly what you had for lunch yesterday. Just take a moment to remember.
Now, in the same amount of time, and without looking at your calendar, try to remember what you had for lunch a week ago yesterday. Not so easy is it? Chances are, unless there was something exceptional about a week ago yesterday (in which case you were using long-term memory), you probably couldn’t remember what you had for lunch a week ago just by calling it up in your mind.
The limited duration and capacity of the short-term level is perfectly functional and works very well in concert with the immediate and long-term memory. But because most people don’t understand how it works, they inadvertently overload their short-term memory and thus block access to their long-term memory. Further research has shown that the limited capacity of seven “bits” actually translates into only two or three pieces of information that we can handle at any one time at the short-term level. So what? Who cares?
Work with Your Memory
Well, if you understand how your memory works, you can work with it much more effectively.
Let’s take reading as an example. Reading a technical report or a professional book can be a frustrating business if you try to read it the way you were taught in school – slowly and carefully.
For on-the-job reading, if you try to remember what you are reading as you are reading it, you will quickly overload your short-term memory. What works much better is to prepare your memory to read, read to understand and to meet your purpose in reading, and then put the material aside and recite to yourself a few key points from what you read.
Try this with your next reading task. First, look over what you are about to read and answer the question, “Why am I reading this now?” If it is going to take you 20 minutes or more to read it, make a few brief notes about what you know already about the topic and define clearly what information you are looking for.
This preparation, which shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes, creates the reminders you need to recreate what you already know about the topic. Now read as quickly as you can understand, looking for the information you need. Skim over areas you already know and slow down only enough to understand when you get to the more useful information. By only attempting to understand as you read, without trying to remember, you will have full access to your long-term memory and you will be able to concentrate and focus more easily. When you have completed the reading, look back over it and jot down a few brief notes. Then put the material aside, and recite to yourself what you have learned from the reading.
Your memory is a great friend and ally, whom you may have been treating as an enemy. Understanding a few key points about your memory can help you to get more value from it every day of your life. It is a valuable tool, sitting right between your ears. Give it a tune up and enjoy a smoother ride.