How Memory Works and 6 Tips to Improve It

Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels
Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels / Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

By Sabrina Stierwalt, Ph.D., Quick and Dirty Tips

Red, purple, green, blue. Red, purple, green, blue. Why is this important? Well, hold that thought.

Have you ever been about to leave your house in the morning rush and realized that you have no idea where you last left your car keys? Have you ever asked yourself, did I schedule that dentist appointment for today or tomorrow? What was it that I needed to get at the store, or what is my boss’s kid’s name again?

The way our memory works is a complicated process, the details of which neuroscientists are still trying to understand. Our brain’s efforts to store information can be broken down into three modes: working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory, each controlled by different parts of the brain.

Short-term memory works to store information for a brief amount of time, typically without any processing of that information. Much of this activity occurs in the prefrontal lobe, the section in the front of the brain that is found to be highly developed in humans compared to other intelligent species. (And, it’s the reason we have such prominent foreheads!) Research suggests that there is a capacity limit along with an expiration date for the memories held in the short-term memory bank, but the details of those limits are still highly contested. The George Miller Theory from 1956 suggested that we could only remember seven units of information at a time in our short-term memory (i.e. seven digits or seven names). However, it has since been shown that this number can vary a lot depending on the type of information, the person doing the memorizing, and the situation.

Working memory is also maintained only in the short term, but differs from short-term memory in that it involves some kind of manipulation or organization of that information. For example, when you meet someone who tells you their name at a party, that name sits in your short-term memory unless you manage to commit it to long-term memory as well. If you decide to estimate how many people are at the party, those calculations will be run in your working memory.

The making of a long-term memory is thought to require an anatomical change in the brain and to be inspired by a strengthening of a certain signal via repeated messages. Our neurons transfer information amongst themselves by sending signals across the gaps between themselves, gaps called synapses. When the same signal is repeated over and over, this sends the message that this information is particularly important. An apt analogy would be my response to getting a phone call from a number that I don’t recognize. If they call once, I will likely ignore it, but if they call back several times in a short span of time, I will start to place more importance on what this stranger might have to say.

The man who couldn't make memories

Much of what we know about memory comes from Henry Gustave Molaison (otherwise known as H.M.). From the time he was a small child, H.M. had epilepsy so severe that doctors suggested removing a portion of his brain in an attempt to cure his seizures. So in 1953, when H.M. was 27, the neurosurgeon Dr. William Scoville removed two sections of H.M.’s brain, including both of his hippocampi.

The surgery was successful in that it reduced his epileptic seizures, but H.M. developed anterograde amnesia: he could no longer make memories.

Doctors quickly realized that H.M.’s lack of certain cognitive functions had nothing to do with dementia or intelligence. H.M. performed well on any I.Q. tests he was given. H.M. could also remember clearly anything that had happened before his operation. It thus became clear that, since the surgery had affected his ability to create memories beyond a few minutes, the hippocampus must be the area of the brain responsible for long term memory.

Dr. Brenda Milner, one of the many neuroscientists to study H.M., conducted an additional experiment with H.M. where she asked him to trace the outline of a star while only being able to see his work in a mirror. His first few efforts produced very shaky results since the task requires moving in the opposite direction from what the mirror shows. However, after repeated attempts, H.M. finally mastered the task despite having no memory of the event of having practiced it before. Thus, while the making of our long-term memories of people, places, or events may take place in the hippocampus, our motor skill memories must be housed elsewhere.

H.M.’s brain continues to be studied even after his death in 2008. In 2009, his brain was sliced into roughly 2000 pieces and digitally imaged down to the scale of individual neurons. The images are publicly available so that the research H.M. has inspired can continue.

How to improve your memory

Here are a few tips on how we might improve our ability to remember information.

Assign an importance to a memory that you want to keep. We tend to remember things in proportion to how important they are. That’s why we are particularly doomed to forget where we’ve left our car keys. When we arrive home, the location of our keys is of very little importance so our brain doesn’t always remember where we’ve put them. Spending some time mulling over a particular piece of information can help make sure it gets converted to long-term memory.

Draw something. Recent studies have shown that drawing a piece of information can help that memory stick around, although scientists are not completely sure why this happens.

One school of thought suggests that the brain works like a muscle that needs to be flexed and toned just like any other muscle in the body to function at its peak. The Mayo Clinic suggests doing crossword puzzles, using an alternate route to get to work, learning a new language or instrument, or volunteering with a new community organization—anything out of the ordinary that requires you to think in new ways and about new topics.

Sleep. Current theories suggest that during sleep, the brain is at work consolidating our memories for us, sorting what we need to keep from what we don’t.

Exercise. Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain which can help improve memory and even reduce our risk of dementia. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate activity spread throughout a week.

Be social. Interacting with our friends and peers is known to ward off depression and other stressors which have been linked to memory loss

Of course, we can also employ tricks to help us remember certain pieces of information: make lists, use mnemonics, limit multi-tasking, or link certain memories to colors. And speaking of colors, can you remember the colors we listed at the beginning of this article?

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as How Memory Works and 6 Tips to Improve It. Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the author

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a professor of physics at Occidental College.