What is Memory?

Questions to consider:

  • Do you think about how you make memories?
  • Do you do anything that helps you keep track of your memories?

Memory is one of those cherished but mysterious elements in life. Everyone has memories, and some people are very good at rapid recall, which is an enviable skill for test-takers. We know that we seem to lose the capacity to remember things as we age, and scientists continue to study how we remember some things but not others and what memory means, but we don’t know that much about memory, really.

Nelson Cowan is one researcher who is working to explain what we do know about memory. His article “What Are the Differences between Long-Term, Short-Term, and Working Memory?” breaks down the different types of memory and what happens when we recall thoughts and ideas (Cowan, 2008). When we remember something, we actually do quite a lot of thinking.

We go through three basic steps when we remember ideas or images: we encode, store, and retrieve that information. Encoding is how we first perceive information through our senses, such as when we smell a lovely flower or a putrid trash bin. Both make an impression on our minds through our sense of smell and probably our vision. Our brains encode, or label, this content in short-term memory in case we want to think about it again. If the information is important and we have frequent exposure to it, the brain will store it for us in case we need to use it in the future in our aptly named long-term memory. Later, the brain will allow us to recall or retrieve that image, feeling, or information so we can do something with it. This is what we call remembering.


Steps to Remembering


Foundations of Memory

William Sumrall et al. (2016) in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science explain the foundation of memory by noting:

Memory is a term applied to numerous biological devices by which living organisms acquire, retain, and make use of skills and knowledge. It is present in all forms of higher order animals. The most evolutionary forms of memory have taken place in human beings. Despite much research and exploration, a complete understanding of human memory does not exist. (p. 23)

Working Memory

Working memory is a type of short-term memory, but we use it when we are actively performing a task; for example, nursing student Shaun needs to use their knowledge of chemical reactions to suggest appropriate prescriptions in various medical case studies. They do not have to recall every single fact they learned in years of chemistry classes, but they do need to have a working memory of certain chemicals and how those chemicals work with others. To ensure they can make these connections, Shaun will have to review and study the relevant chemical details for the types of drug interactions they will recommend in the case studies.

In working memory, you have access to whatever information you have stored in your memory that helps you complete the task you are performing; for instance, when you begin to study an assignment, you certainly need to read the directions, but you must also remember that in class your professor reduced the number of problem sets the written instructions indicated you needed to finish. This was an oral addition to the written assignment instructions. The change to the instructions is what you bring up in working memory when you complete the assignment.

Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory is a very handy thing. It helps us remember where we set our keys or where we left off on a project the day before. Think about all the aids we employ to help us with short-term memory: you may hang your keys in a particular place each evening so you know exactly where they are supposed to be. When you go grocery shopping, do you ever choose a product because you recall an advertising jingle? You see the box of cereal and you remember the song in the TV commercial. If that memory causes you to buy that product, the advertising worked. We help our memory along all the time, which is perfectly fine. In fact, we can modify these everyday examples of memory assistance for purposes of studying and test-taking. The key is the deliberate use of strategies that are not so elaborate that they are too difficult to remember in our short-term memory.


Consider this list of items. Look at the list for no more than 30 seconds. Then, cover up the list and use a blank piece of paper or Word document to complete an activity.


Picture frame


Paper clip


Pair of dice

Fingernail polish







Jar of sand

Deck of cards






Without looking at the list, write down as many items as you can remember.

Now, look back at your list and make sure that you give yourself credit for any that you got right. Any items that you misremembered, meaning they were not in the original list, you won’t count in your total. What was the total number of items remembered?

There were 20 total items. Did you remember between 5 and 9 items? If you did, then you have a typical short-term memory and you just participated in an experiment, of sorts, to prove it.

Considering the vast amount of knowledge available to us, 5 to 9 bits isn’t very much to work with. To combat this limitation, we clump information together, making connections to help us stretch our capacity to remember. Many factors play into how much we can remember and how we do it, including the subject matter, how familiar we are with the ideas, and how interested we are in the topic, but we certainly cannot remember absolutely everything for a test or any other task we face. As such, we have to use effective strategies, like those we cover later on, to get the most out of our memories.


Now, let’s revisit the items above. Go back to them and see if you can organize them in a way that you would have about five groups of items. The following are examples of how to group to them:

  • items found in a kitchen;
  • items that a child would play with;
  • items of nature;
  • items in a desk drawer/school supplies;
  • items found in a bedroom.

Now that you have grouped items into categories, also known as chunking, you can work on remembering the categories and the items that fit into those categories, which will result in remembering more items. Try it out by covering up the list of items again and writing down what you can remember.

Now, look back at your list and make sure that you give yourself credit for any that you got right. Any items that you misremembered, meaning they were not in the original list, you won’t count in your total. Did you increase how many items you could remember?

Memory by Eliricon from NounProject.com

Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory is exactly what it sounds like. These are things you recall from the past, such as the smell of your favourite meal or how to pop a wheelie on a bicycle. Our brain keeps a vast array of information, images, and sensory experiences in long-term memory. Whatever it is we are trying to keep in our memories, whether a beautiful song or a list of chemistry vocabulary terms, must first come into our brains in short-term memory. If we want these fleeting ideas to transfer into long-term memory, we have to do some work, such as causing frequent exposure to the information over time (such as studying the terms every day for a period of time or the repetition you performed to memorize multiplication tables or spelling rules) and some relevant manipulation for the information.

According to Alison Preston (2007) of the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Learning and Memory:

A short-term memory’s conversion to a long-term memory requires changes within the brain…and result[s] in changes to neurons (nerve cells) or sets of neurons. . . . For example, new synapses — the connections between neurons through which they exchange information — can form to allow for communication between new networks of neurons. Alternatively, existing synapses can be strengthened to allow for increased sensitivity in the communication between two neurons.

When you work to convert your thoughts into memories, you are literally changing your mindMuch of this brain work begins in the part of the brain called the hippocampus. We learn the lyrics of a favourite song by singing and/or playing the song over and over. That alone may not be enough to get that song into the coveted long-term memory area of our brain, but if we have an emotional connection to the song, such as a painful breakup or a life-changing proposal that occurred while we were listening to the song, this may help. Think of ways to make your study session memorable and create connections with the information you need to study. That way, you have a better chance of keeping your study material in your memory so you can access it whenever you need it.

Questions to consider:

  • What are some ways you convert short-term memories into long-term memories?
  • Do your memorization strategies differ for specific courses (for example, how you remember for math or history)?


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