Facts about human memory

Facts about human memory

“If we could remember everything, we’d mostly feel just as bad as if we couldn’t remember anything.” – William James

It can often be heard that we are all actually a collection of our own memories. Our experiences make us who we are.

However, human memory is still largely unknown, which is one of the reasons why some people say they have, say, poor memory. Such erroneous assumptions also occur due to the similarities we think we have with computer memory, which is an analogy we make to make it easier to understand our own. However, that is not exactly true. Human memory is far more complex than the memory on our computers or phones.

In the following text, I will list the facts about human memory, some of which are the complete opposite of what is usually thought of memory:

Memory does not perish

Each of us has experienced that frustrating moment when we can’t remember anything. It could be someone’s name, a word in a foreign language, or where we parked the car.

It seems so obvious that our memory decays over time, like when leaves fall from a branch in autumn – a completely natural process. However, there are researchers who would disagree with this. Moreover, some researchers believe that human memory has unlimited capacity. Everything is stored in memory, but without memories, it is harder for us to access our memories. This means that it is not the memory that perishes, but our ability to bring certain contents to consciousness.

But what is the point then – that we can remember everything, but not call for it? That brings us to the next fact…

Facts about human memory

Forgetting helps us learn

The idea that forgetting helps us learn at first glance seems contradictory, but let’s look at things as follows: imagine that we have created an artificial brain that can remember and recall absolutely all the information memorized. If this impressive brain tried to remember where the car was parked, it would automatically bring to consciousness all the parked cars are ever seen, which would actually be a lot of cars.

And there is every chance that the one we need will be remembered most freshly. And that is common knowledge when it comes to our memories. Recent events are usually much more important than those that happened a long time ago.

In order to make our superbrain faster and more useful in real situations, we would have to create some kind of system that would filter out old, unnecessary information. We all, in fact, have one such system, and its name is – forgetting.

This is why forgetting helps us learn: the harder unimportant information is available, the easier it is for us to deal with what is most important to us in our daily lives.

“Lost” memories can be revived

This is actually another confirmation of the fact that memory does not fail. It is about the idea that memories can become less accessible, but they can certainly be invoked.

Even those memories that are difficult or seem impossible for us to invoke are still there, waiting to reach the content of consciousness. Experiments have shown that even information that has been inaccessible to us for a long time can be recalled. This allows us to remember new information even faster if it is associated with old ones.

This fact is supported by well-known examples such as swimming or cycling, and although they do not apply to all motor skills, they do apply to our memories.

Facts about human memory

Remembering changes the content of what is remembered

Although it represents the very basis of understanding memory, the idea that recollection changes the content of what is remembered seems illogical. How can remembering change the content of what you remember?

Here’s how: when we remember a certain event, it becomes stronger in our memory compared to other memories. For example, let’s try to remember a certain birthday from childhood and remember the special gift we received. Every time we remember that other things we received for the birthday will become less accessible to us in relation to that, specific memory.

The process of remembering, then, really constructs the past, that is, those parts of our past that we can remember.

This is, in fact, just the beginning. There are also – false memories, which can be created by this process or false recollection. Psychologists have indeed experimentally confirmed the existence of false memories.

In conclusion, an interesting idea emerges – that we actually create ourselves by choosing which memories we will remember.

Memory is unstable

The fact that a simple action such as remembering changes memory leads to the conclusion that it is relatively unstable. But we usually think that our memory is stable: let’s forget what we forget, and we hope that in the future we will not forget what we know now.

This means that students will probably agree that they rather underestimate how much effort it takes to keep what they have learned in their memory. And they are not the only ones, which leads us to the sixth fact:

The prediction is biased

This has happened to each of us. We think that if something is important or attractive to us, there is no chance that we will forget. Then why bother writing down, say, a phone number or an appointment? Usually, within ten minutes, we will forget what it is about and that memory will never come back to our consciousness.

The same was confirmed in the laboratory. In a study conducted by Koriat and Bjork (2005), people learned pairs of words like “light-lamp” and then estimated how likely they were to be able to give the answer “lamp” every time only the word “light” was given”. Respondents were too confident in themselves, and the reason for that is the bias of predictions. When the word “light” was shown to them, they remembered various things such as light bulbs or shadows, and the correct answers were not nearly as easy as they had predicted.

Facts about human memory

When remembering is easy – learning is weak

We feel smart when we think of something quickly, and stupid when we need a lot of time. In terms of learning, it should be quite the opposite. When we easily recall something, that is, we do not work actively on remembering, then learning does not take place. Then, when it is difficult for us to bring some content to consciousness, it happens – learning.

When our memories are rehearsed, the more we try to reconstruct the desired event, the stronger the memory becomes. That’s why effective learning techniques include testing – because simply presenting or reading information is not enough – learning requires effort in remembering.

Learning largely depends on the context

Have you ever noticed that when you learn something in one context or place, such as a classroom, it later becomes harder to remember what you learned in another context? This arises as a consequence of the connection between learning and where and how we do it: it depends on who is present, where we are and how we learn.

It has been shown that the information we are exposed to in different ways and in different contexts has been best remembered. When learning largely depends on the context, there is no transfer of what has been learned to a situation outside the context in which the learning took place.

“Supplementing” the memory

If you want to learn to play tennis, what do you think – is it better to learn service one week, then forehand, then backhand and so on? Or would you practice all these elements every day?

It turns out that it is easier to remember information from long-term memory when it is mixed. This is especially true for learning motor skills, such as tennis, but also for declarative memory, such as – which is the capital of Venezuela?

Facts about human memory

The main problem with this kind of learning is that it is difficult to start it. If you practice service and then quickly switch to forehand, you can forget how to serve in the meantime! Even though you feel like things are only getting worse, you are constantly practicing your service. In the long run, this is the only way to establish what has been learned.

One explanation for this is the “complementary hypothesis” – every time we interrupt a task, we have to refresh and supplement our memory. This process (“reloading”) enhances the effects of learning.

Learning is under our control

The practical outcome of this fact about human memory is that we very often underestimate the control we (think we have) over our own memory.

For example, people find that some things, by their very nature, are harder to learn, so they give up. However, techniques such as the use of different contexts, “switching” from one task to another, and the strenuous reconstruction of the memorized can help to improve memory and thus learning.

We tend to think that the past is immutable and behind us. But the fact is that it can be changed. Because, from how and how much we remember the past, some memories stored in it can change. Remembering in different ways can help us reinterpret the past and thus influence our future. For example, research has shown that we are able to “squeeze out” negative memories by focusing on positive ones (Levy & Anderson, 2008).

All in all, our memory is not as weak as we tend to believe. It may not work like a computer, but that is why it is interesting to research it in search of understanding and applying what we learn to our daily lives.

Facts about human memory


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