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How Memory Works

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The human brain is arguably the most amazing, mysterious, and complex computer known to mankind. Nonetheless, scientists have unraveled a few details that explain the process that we call memory.

By understanding how memory works, you may be able to retain more information in your long term memory. That's where we store the things we learn!

Long Term and Short Term

Remembering is really the act of recalling something that we've stored away in our brains.

Think of your brain as a storage space with two compartments called long term and short term.

Obviously, if we store something away in the short-term compartment, we won't be able to keep it very long. It dissolves within seconds if we don't refresh and renew it.

Short term memory is sometimes called working memory. It involves the process of remembering little tidbits of information that we need as we work through our day. An example of working memory in action is remembering where we place our pencil between working on math problems.

You won't really need that information later in the day, so you don't even try to send that sort of information to the long-term bin.

When we encounter information that we know we'll need to use later, we try to memorize it by sending it to the long term compartment. Sometimes it stays there, and sometimes it dissolves.

There are a few ways to make things "stick."

Committing Things to Long Term Memory

There is one fail-safe way to keep memories "fresh" in the long term bin. That method is rehearsing. When you rehearse information over and over, it starts to sink in. Once it sinks in, you can recall it as you need it.

But there's another process that takes place in long term memory that you should be aware of. It's called deletion. Deletion of information is caused by decay and interference.

  • New information decays if you ignore it too long.
  • New information dissolves if it becomes bombarded by too much noise and interference.
If you wait too long between rehearsal sessions, decay can set in. If you try to memorize information while the TV is on, the interference can cause deletion.

The science behind memory and recall leads to several conclusions about memorizing information for school:

  • Rehearsal, which means repetition, makes information sink in.
  • You should not wait until the last day to study. When you do this, you cheat your brain of its necessary rehearsal time.
  • You should not wait too long between rehearsal (study) sessions.
  • Even if you study a lot, you will forget some information if you don't review.
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