How to remember effectively (and why you're doing it wrong)

November 13, 2015

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The concept of 'short-term memory' is flawed. We've spoken before about how memory is usually considered in three 'stores', long term, short term and sensory. But short-term memory presents a...

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Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


The concept of 'short-term memory' is flawed. We've spoken before about how memory is usually considered in three 'stores', long term, short term and sensory. But short-term memory presents a problem, in that there are many routes to our long-term memory. The idea of three 'stores'  places far too much emphasis on the structure of our brain and not enough on the process.

Memory isn't just a 'store', it's a complex system

So Alan Baddeley came up with the idea of the 'working memory', possibly a term you've heard before. He created the idea of four separate components of our short-term memory that come together to help us remember.
  1. The phonological loop - this is where we hear and interpret speech, something that only comes to us as we grow older. It appears to be a developed way of shortcutting our remembrance of word-like sounds (deaf people don't seem to have it, neither do those under five or six)
  2. Visuo-spatial sketchpad - this is what we use to store and interpret visual and spatial information (like map reading). Specifically though, it appears to prefer to either process visual information OR spatial information, and is reluctant to do both.
  3. Episodic Buffer - this is the bad boy that connects up the information in the phonological loop, the visuo-spatial sketchpad and ties it all together neatly so you can use it in the
  4. Central Executive - the hub, that sits in the middle and uses what information you're playing with currently, augments it with information from elsewhere (like other important things you might want to attend to or your long term memory) and then co-ordinates the whole thing.
So, information comes in and gets dealt with in the appropriate place (the loop or the sketchpad), gets tied together by the buffer and then gets handed off to the central executive for final touchups before it's ready to be used. Simple right?

Ha, wrong. This model helpful, but really, we have no idea how many processes there are. I already hinted at the controversy around the 'sketchpad' for example; some think it should be completely separate due to the difficulty it has processing visual and spatial information simultaneously. And the Central Executive was proposed after testing people who had messed up high-order skills (like brain trauma patients who couldn't plan properly or manage time well). After they spent all that time mapping out how they thought it worked, they realised it didn't really match up to healthy people.

The best way to learn is...

So why bother writing the article? Good question, hypothetical person. The reasons are many:
  • your memory is an extraordinarily complex thing;
  • trying to talk about 'short term' and 'long term' memory like some kind of storage system means you're missing out on those complexities;
  • all those complexities mean that you need to look past just 'rehearsing' (practicing, listening to or reading over) material to remember it; and
  • the best way to learn is to elaborate - teach it, or link it to stuff you already know, that way you more effectively utilise these complex functions.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn" - Benjamin Franklin

Learn how subliminal messaging doesn't even touch our 'working memory'. Do you talk to yourself when you're trying to remember stuff? Well, you aren't crazy, but you could be doing it more effectively. Learn how, here. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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