How do we remember?
Science tells us that memory evolves through three stages, namely: Encoding, Storing and Retrieving. Arranging the information we encounter, in an easy-to-remember format is Encoding. In the next stage, this encoded information is Stored. And it is recalled at a later date in the Retrieval stage. Consequently, when we remember a past event, we are thought to have successfully gone through these three stages in memorizing.
Any information picked up by the sensory organs and retained in our mind for a long time, falls under the category of Sensory memory. Nursery rhymes reminding us of our childhood; the aroma from the kitchen bringing back memories of a loving grandma are examples of this.
Information which you continue to process, even as it goes through the encoding and storage stages, is termed Working Memory. For example, the mental calculation you do when shopping. Working memory has a capacity constraint. It is also prone to distractions. After looking up a telephone number in the directory, you repeat it a few times to remember; yet at the slightest distraction, you tend to forget it.
Compound Memory is the simultaneous retrieval of unrelated experiences encountered at various times, a mix of distant and not-so-distant memories. For example, while having dinner, you may recall your friend’s birthday; think of your car in the garage; remember parts of a movie you watched years ago etc.
Compound Memory has three constituents:
Semantic Memory is all about facts and figures, which we learn to retain. Examples are: Countries, their capitals and currencies; Words and their meanings; Mathematical equations etc. Semantic memory has little relevance to time or place.
The skills we acquire viz; driving a car, swimming, practicing Yoga etc. fall under Procedural memory. One interesting feature here is, unlike Episodic and Semantic types, skills stored in Procedural Memory come to surface naturally. Expression is through performance, not narration!
In conversations, we hear and laugh out at a joke, making no effort to memorize it. But days later, we end up sharing the same joke with someone. There was no prior intention to do so; the joke just surfaced in our thoughts! That is Implicit memory.
Explicit memory, on the other hand, refers to the intentional and conscious retrieval of past experiences. If you were asked to describe the scene of the accident you were involved in years ago, you would be explicitly trying to retrieve it.
How big is Memory?
We live in a world, where we are exposed to non-stop avalanche of information. We sense it, but make no conscious effort to remember. Yet, the information that hits us undergoes the process of encoding and storage. It happens automatically, with no special effort or awareness. An example is the feeling we get, when we see a person supposedly for the first time, that we have seen him earlier.
Another illustration is the visit to the surroundings we once lived in, triggering memories of the distant past. All along we had it in us, but did not know how to retrieve it. The visit acted as a stimulus to open the floodgate of memories!
This leads us to a plausible theory: Is Memory elastic? Does it have the ability to capture and retain information of any kind and volume, throughout one’s lifetime? No one knows for sure. But, one thing is clear. If, what is perceived as a lapse occurs, it is not because we forget, but we fail to retrieve.
Why do we fail to recall?
Inability to remember is a natural occurrence, indicating a breakdown in one of the three stages of memorizing. Main reasons are:
- Inactivate memories
- Physiological changes
- Interference from newer incidents
- Overlapping of experiences
- Fear, Despair, or emotional disturbances
- Lack of motivation