Memory mysteries unlocked – with help from Google

Posted by on April 29, 2013

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The Brain – how memory works 

Can anyone tell me exactly how human memory works?

I have ‘googled’ the internet looking for answers, but what I find are lots of conflicting ideas and information.

And, when I look at the credentials of the sources, most are ‘experts’ in the fields of psychology and/or neuroscience (see Notes [1] and [2] below).  So, if the ‘experts’ cannot agree, where does that leave a ‘layperson’ like me?

Some of the reasons why I want to understand more about how our memory works are:

  1. I am getting older – and some of the sources say that once we pass 35, we start to forget stuff, like “where did I put my house keys?” (Hint to myself: always check my coat pockets!)
  2. My profession is about learning – and as our ability to remember and recall information is crucial to learning, I need to use ‘best practices’ when I design and present my work.
  3. When I watch infants (like my 18-month old grandson) I see a thirst for exploration and ‘boundary-pushing’, so how do these experiences become converted into understanding and knowledge?
  4. In this era of Google and the internet, there are times when I feel like I am being flooded with information, making me wonder if I am replacing ‘good’ facts with something that is not so good

There are some things that seem to be agreed by most ‘experts’.  These include:

  • Google and the internet are changing the way our memory works
  • our memory consists of three different ‘stages’ (or perhaps ‘levels’)
  • the remembering ‘rule’ of 7 (plus or minus 2) items is actually wrong
  • different parts of our memories are stored in different parts of our brains
  • reviewing or recalling information leads to a strengthening of the memory
  • ‘lost’ memories are NOT gone, they still exist, but recall has become difficult
Will external sources replace our memory?

Will external sources replace our memory?

Let’s take a look at some of these.

About Google and the internet:  In July 2011, a US study team reported that people are remembering fewer facts and less information when they think that they can use ‘search’ to find whatever they need.  Some say this is not all bad, because our memories can become unreliable.

Memory has three ‘stages’:  Although different ‘experts’ use a range of terms and explanations, there is broad agreement that our memory has three stages or levels.  The sensory level is related to what our senses are aware of; the short-term (or working) level is where we are consciously thinking about something; the long-term level is where our memories are stored.  Sensory memory inputs last for up to 1 second, items in Short-Term/Working memory are retained for 15-20 seconds, and Long-Term memory is permanent.

7 (plus of minus 2) items is wrong:  Since the 1950s, the mantra has been “7 ±2” – this being the average limit for human short-term memory capacity (based on research by psychologist George Miller).  In 2000, psychologist Nelson Cowan found that the average human mental storage capacity for young adults was actually only four items or ‘chunks’ of information.

How different parts of memories are stored:  We process information in working level memory; from there, each part of what we sensed goes to a point in the brain and then loops back on itself.  E.g. for a particular ‘event’, information about what we see, what we hear, where we are, who is there, what we do, etc., is stored in different places in the brain.  To retrieve the memory, we reactivate the pieces from the different parts of the brain to reconstruct the event.

Strengthening our memories:  Immediately after we learn something, we can usually recall much of the information.  But, as time goes by, we forget more and more; most of this happens because we are taking in more new information.  By reviewing newly learned information within the next 60 minutes, and again after 24 hours, we are strengthening our memories.  The more times we do this, the better our recall becomes.  Hint:  when emotions are involved in the process, the memory formation is stronger.

‘Lost’ memories are NOT gone:  Many researchers consider that memory has limitless capacity. This means that everything is stored.  But, unless we have been reconnecting to particular memories through review or recall, we are going to have difficulty gaining access.  While the ‘experts’ don’t offer any failsafe solutions here, it is sometimes possible to reconnect through association with other memories.

Note:  If it is the “lost keys” syndrome – instead of panicking, I must stop and think.  I need to go back over my actions before I put the keys down.  Then I try to remember what I was thinking and feeling – context-dependent memory is what I need now.  I mentally reconstruct the entire scenario, as if it was a crime scene.  Eventually, little details will surface in my memory, and I will have that moment of relief when I remember exactly where I put my keys.

Overview:  the three levels of our memory

Overview: the three levels of our memory

It would seem that the challenge for my grandson’s generation will not be about remembering facts and other information.  Rather, thanks to Google (and its competitors and successors), it will be about how to find information, and how to decide what information is reliable, and what is not.  This is called ‘information literacy’.

Our first free nugget for this Post is a July 2011 video clip The Internet vs Memory? (2min:09sec) from MSNBC showing an interview with Dr Betsy Sparrow about the study into “Google Effects on Memory”:  or

Our second free nugget is the 14 July 2011 NYT article Internet Use Affects Memory, Study Finds, reporting on Dr Sparrow’s study (this is about a 2-2½ minute read):

The third free nugget for the Post is a January 2013 video How Memory Works (3min:27sec).  This is posted by RachDerp, a British teenager, as preparation for a psychology exam.  While this is obviously a ‘home’ video production, the message is still quite effective – as is evidenced by a scan through the comments.  What I do find especially interesting about this video is that it is an strong example of 21st Century Learning.  The video has either replaced or is supplementing the need for writing and memorising notes, it can be replayed ‘on demand’ to refresh recall of memory, and it can be shared with others.  I love it!!:
Note: at about 2min:25sec, the topic of the video changes to some messages to her friends

Coming next:  How to make a ‘Stop doing’ list  (in the meantime, enjoy the free nuggets!).

[1]  Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system []
[2]  Psychology involves the scientific study of mental functions and behaviours []


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