What do you remember and how do you remember one thing and your sibling remembers something else? Human memory is complex. We try to replicate it with computers and A.I. Technology. But we barely understand how human memory works. Or where we store our memories. Or how and what corrupts our memory. Scientific examination and study of memory only began in recent history.
The Study of Memory
The scientific study of memory didn’t begin until fairly late in human history. Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850–1909), a German psychologist, pioneered the study of memory. The “father of experimental psychology of memory” began his first experiment in late 1878. He published his study, Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology (Über das Gedächtnis in the original German), in 1885. They published the English version in 1913.
His study had many limitations. The major one being that his only subject was himself. But he made many discoveries: the forgetting curve, spacing effect, and the learning curve. You can read more about his discoveries on Wikipedia or on Flash Card Learner.
What is Memory?
Even our everyday definition of memory is complex. Memory is—
1a: the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms–began to lose his memory as he grew older
b: the store of things learned and retained from an organism’s activity or experience as evidenced by modification of structure or behavior or by recall and recognition–has a good memory for faces
2a: commemorative remembrance–erected a statue in memory of the hero
b: the fact or condition of being remembered–days of recent memory
3a: a particular act of recall or recollection–has no memory of the event
b: an image or impression of one that is remembered–fond memories of her youth
c: the time within which past events can be or are remembered–within the memory of living men
4a: a device (such as a chip) or a component of an electronic device (such as a computer or smartphone) in which information can be inserted and stored and from which it may be extracted when wanted–especially: RAM
b: capacity for storing information–512 megabytes of memory
5: a capacity for showing effects as the result of past treatment or for returning to a former condition—used especially of a material (such as metal or plastic)Merriam-Webster Dictionary
According to Boundless Psychology there is a simpler definition. Memory is “the ability of an organism to record information about things or events with the facility of recalling them later at will.”
Stages of Memory
The three stages of memory are encoding, storage, and retrieval.
Encoding is the process of receiving, processing, and combining information.
Storage is the process by which we keep memory for a time.
The third stage of memory, retrieval, is also called recall or recognition. Something triggers us to recall a memory and use it in a process or activity.
Types of Memory
Scientists have identified three major types of memory: Sensory, Short Term, and Long Term.
Sensory memory is a detailed representation of an entire sensory experience. It is not a conscious process. There are many types of sensory memories. The most frequently studied include iconic (visual) memories, echoic (auditory) memories, and haptic (tactile) memories.
Short Term Memory, also known as working memory, lasts for about twenty seconds. We can only store about five to nine “items” in short term memory. However, we can move these items to long-term memory via what scientists call rehearsal. Rehearsal or repetition is the act of repeating the memory over and over.
Long Term memory includes anything we hold in memory for longer than twenty seconds. Scientists have identified many types of long-term memory, too many to discuss in a brief, introductory blog post.
More to Come
This blog post is a brief introduction into what you remember and how. Over the next few months we’ll look deeper into the mystery and complexities of memories retained and lost.
I find human memory fascinating. The lack of and haunting presence of memory plays a part in my series, My Soul to Keep. In the next few posts, we’ll touch on diseases of memory. Diseases you may be interested in like Alzheimer’s and dementia and White Matter disease. And if you’re interested, we’ll discuss trauma-induced memory loss. Do you have other questions or topics regarding memory that you’d like me to discuss?