Understanding Memory – Step 1 Encoding Information

Today we will take a look at what happens in the minds of two resource management professionals, Sarah and Abby, as they visit a site together. We will meet them later, but for now here is an introduction to this month’s topic (to skip the intro scroll down to the first heading Step 1: Encoding Information)

The blog topic this month is Memory. Human memory, not computer memory. These days, the most common analogy used to explain human memory is computer memory but I will try to avoid this to keep things people focused.

Science has discovered much more about human memory in recent years. This is a result of medical scanning technology such as MRI. This allows experts to look at what is happening physically in the human mind as it processes information. It is a real time glimpse into the world of how our minds work. So what can we learn about how we store and recollect memories? And how can we use this knowledge to adapt our practice to the digital age?

Over this series of posts we will look at the three steps of memory:

  1. identifying information and encoding it to your memory (today’s topic)
  2. storing memories
  3. recalling memories

In the final post for the month we will wrap up our look at memory.

Check out some helpful graphics on our Pinterest page to visualise these concepts – click Memory to go straight to the relevant pinboard.

Step 1: Encoding Information

So, back to Sarah and Abby. Sarah has been a planner for 7 years and is going with graduate planner Abby on a site visit. They are looking at the site for a proposed childcare centre in an industrial-zoned area.

How do their minds process what they see on site? We will look at each of the steps in the process of encoding memories.


There are three steps to encoding information:

  1. Perceive it and retain briefly in sensory memory (and Notice it – things you notice (consciously or sub-consciously) pass to short term memory)
  2. Process it in your short term memory
  3. Encode it to long term memory

1. Sensory Memory

Sensory Memory is the ability to remember a sound or an image beyond the immediate perception by the senses. It allows our planners to remember that they hear a bus go past the site long enough for the next stage of memory to give them some meaning from that perception. It is what allows their colleague in ecology to see a fleeting glimpse of a scattering lizard and be able to hold that image long enough to take meaning from it.

Abby relies quite heavily on taking photographs of the things she sees on site visit. She has so much to process in short term memory while on site that she does not trust herself to remember all the relevant things which she sees. Photographs will allow her to further analyse what she has seen back at the office – because she can take a snapshot of what her eyes have seen.

Sarah, who is more experienced, is more adept at filtering sensory inputs to detect what is relevant. She doesn’t really see irrelevant parts of the environment, because her attention is only on the things that she knows matter. Features such as a large tree overhanging the boundary or the signs that there is a residential unit in the warehouse next door will be visual perceptions which are immediately noticed and sent to her short term memory.  Other details will not be even registered let alone remembered.

2. Short Term Memory

Short Term Memory is a real workhorse. It does two things in tandem – it holds the information and it processes it. You need both these things to be working together. You need to remember the first half of the paragraph while you read the second half if you are to extract meaning from the whole.

Short term memory is only really good for remembering 4 things, possibly 5. The adage about remembering 7 things has now been debunked. You can use chunking to assist your short term memory. This is grouping information to make it easier to remember such as breaking a phone number up into a three digit and four digit number rather than trying to remember a 7 digit one.

For our planners on site, they may chunk information based on resource or effect. For example rather than remembering if there are boundary treatments on each boundary of the site (which will be four different boundaries for a standard site), you can chunk this information and remember ‘all boundaries are fenced‘ or ‘all boundaries but the rear one are fenced‘. This is chunking information in groups to make it easier to process.

Of course it is important not to overuse your short term memory. You should be making notes on a site visit. By understanding how limited short term memory is we can allow ourselves to rely on other memory aids.

The most important thing we can do in the digital age is to digitize information we collect on site as soon as we can. Rather than hold it in our minds and some hastily written notes, we can put it into a computer and share it with our team. This also saves any issues with forgetting.

Which brings us to how the short term memory starts to retain things for longer term memories. In short it uses repetition for things which will be encoded to long term memory and it starts to do this as it is processing the information in short term memory.

It works with three different ways to remember:

  1. how it looks
  2. how it sounds
  3. what it means

3. Encoding to Long Term Memory

We would expect Sarah and Abby to take detailed site visit notes and some photographs. Some of this information collected on site is so important that it will need to be retained and used throughout the project when they are working out how to manage the potential effects. So some of this information ends up in long term memory. How does this happen?

It is through repetition and via one of three main means – encoding visual information, sound information or semantic information (meaning). For example, you may remember there is a playground in a park next to your subject site because you heard children playing, you saw children playing on it, or you saw a sign for the playground which leads you to derive the meaning that children play here. Smell has a more direct line to the brain and can be seen as a memory aid, we have all experienced the power of a smell to make us recall a long forgotten memory.

Human memory is associative – more on that in the next  post. But for now, we can say that Sarah will recall details on this site visit better than Abby because she has a more focused encoding, storage and decoding process. When she encodes information it is linked to previous projects which involved similar memories. Not just other child care centre projects, but other projects with the same resources or same effects e.g. those with overhanging tree. Her brain is immediately linking key information from the site visit to items and processes which are already in her long term memory. This means that she has a framework to place this information on, which makes for more reliable and accurate encoding which is able to be recalled in a number of ways.

Abby sees the novelty in this project -this is the first project she has dealt with for a childcare centre and the first time she has had a site in an industrial zone. The proposed activity is new, the environment is new and so is the planning framework that she is dealing with. She feels as if there are relatively few ‘hooks’ to hang new information on and so her encoding is likely to be less strong than Sarah’s.

In a later post we will see how Abby does have some advantages, for example it is easy for Sarah to recall the incorrect information for this site  – the fact she has dealt with numerous similar sites can trick her memory processes. Whilst Abby struggles she may be more accurate with the detail because she has consciously worked to encode it for longer than Sarah has (and has made more notes as well).

Abby’s photos have another useful purpose. You remember more if you replicate the conditions when you remembered something. So by looking at photos of her site visit she can put herself mentally back in the space and access memory cues which will help her recall information. It has been established that students do better on a test if they study in the same room as the test will be given in. This can be reverse engineered – by adding cues to your memories as you encode them, you help yourself remember and recall them. This works for both the physical environment you were in when you remembered (i.e. on site) but also memory devices you use when you encode for example acronyms for remembering lists of information. These mental devices include all sorts of connections – visually, spatially, semantically or acoustically.

So how can I encode better?

So how can this be applied to your work?

  • Firstly, in this digital age full of data, the best thing you can do is use technology to process and store factual information. Human minds are not good at storing facts. Talk to us here at RMA Digital if you would like to know more about designing information flows.
  • Secondly, remember the importance of noticing and paying attention if you are to perceive information accurately. Stress and being busy can easily lead you to overlook key information. Take a minute to notice the information you are presented with. If you don’t have a procedure down-pat then make sure you follow a checklist so you don’t miss a step.
  • Thirdly, for things you do want to remember, add cues to assist in recall. By connecting new information to existing memories, you will remember better. Search elaborative encoding / mnemonics for some technique inspirations.
  • Finally, also be aware that when you sit at the same computer at the same work station all day, your mind has no physical conditions to add as cues to the encoding. This is not how our memories were designed to operate. Information was linked to particular tasks in particular places. When we have our devices on us 24/7 we need to recall information that previously would have been reserved for recall “at work” or “at home”. Asking our minds to recall it anywhere works against us. So see what you can adopt from your surrounds to act as a prompt as well (e.g. use a different office when working on that big project to better remember and recall the information relevant to that project) – and try to replicate these conditions when recalling as well.

Join us next post for a look at how our minds store information.

Follow us to see the next three posts as they are uploaded.

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