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

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

Dorian Minors • November 13, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

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?

'Alright, everything is set out right. What was I doing now?' - your brain after processing all your eccentric nonsense. 'Alright, everything is set out right. What was I doing now?' - your brain after processing all your eccentric nonsense.

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:

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.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.