Understanding Memory – Step 2 Storing Information

We continue this month’s blog topic – Memory. Human memory. See the last post here for an introduction to this topic and the first step in memory: Encoding Information.

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

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

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

In this month’s posts we are using the scenario of two planners on a site visit to explore memory. Abby is a graduate planner, and Sarah has 7 years experience. Sarah and Abby are undertaking a site visit for a child care centre in an industrial zone.

Step 2: Storing Information

Unlike short term memory which is very limited, scientists believe our long term memory is pretty much endless. Forgetting is usually about a failure to encode or decode the memory. True forgetting is less common, in most cases the information is still stored, you just can’t get to it when you want it.

Here is five key things to understand about storing info, followed by how we can use these ideas to improve our work.

1. Brain wiring is like a road which responds to its traffic volume

The best way to understand the neurology of your brain is with an analogy of  ‘roads’ or ‘pathways’ as shown in this Neuroplasticity video . This video shows that the brain’s wiring physically responds to the experiences it has. It builds stronger paths for things commonly used. So if you revisit information in your memory, you are creating a stronger road to this information in the future. Conversely, if you fail to use that road, it will get weaker.

2. Memories do not sit statically in one ‘folder’

The most important concept to understand about memory storage is that a memory is not a single thing. It is not like a file you put on a shelf in your office or a folder on a computer. Because human memory is associative, things are stored in a way that is difficult for us to conceptualise.

New memories are stored based on how they got into the memory. Visual information you saw and auditory information you heard are initially stored in different parts of your brain. There is a process of consolidation where this information, as it is recalled and used for different purposes, starts to form a package. Sleep also provides a critical role in the consolidation process. This consolidation process forms a good long term memory. For example, simple information about what you see and hear as you learn a skill is ultimately packaged into your procedural memory as a mastered skill. New memories are retained patterns of neural activity and the brain uses these to physically reshape the wiring of your brain (i.e. strengthen the roads you need to access that memory).

For our planners on site, Sarah has a strong procedural memory for undertaking a site visit and this skill helps her sort information more effectively. Abby’s mind is forming memory not only about this site, but also the process of what to do on a site visit. This experience will add to her development of a procedural memory for this skill.

As the project is worked on in the coming weeks, discussed at meetings and reports prepared, both will revisit certain visual images from their time on site. For example, that large tree on the neighbouring property is discussed at meetings, a report from the arborist must be reviewed and a planning assessment report is written. As this tree comes up again and again, it is consolidated further into the planner’s mind. Conversely aspects of the environment which were not noteworthy or did not need further assessment or analysis will fade away, as the mind has not been asked to call up these details. This is where problems can arise if something else on site was relevant but was not noticed.

3. Memories do initially fade

As you sleep each night the brain culls the day’s events and adds relevant material to be built into long term memory. Things you remember after this initial housekeeping are still affected by time. Memories initially fall off quite rapidly, but the good news is that this eases quite promptly too. What does remain appears to be stored very well thereafter. So if you don’t forget it in the first year or two then it will probably be with you forever. With the right cue it will resurface years or decades later. It is in there somewhere.

4. Interference prevents you from distinguishing between repetitive experiences

One issue that can affect storage is what is termed Interference.  It’s really easy to recall information the day after a site visit, but by the time the report is ready to be prepared, several months may have passed. Details of other projects and other site visits interfere with the information you are trying to recall. An event has to be pretty special to be remembered as a unique event, rather than the relentless routine of daily life. Yet this is what we need to do in our professional life to keep each project well defined.

5. Emotion tells the mind to prioritise a memory

Memories with emotional association have some priority in the brain. The brain takes the emotion attached to a memory as a sign of importance. Hormones such as dopamine leave traces of emotion on these memories.

No matter how well adjusted we are, it is fair to say as humans we each have one or two emotions which are a real challenge for us. It may be anger, rejection, frustration, boredom, anxiety. Whichever emotion triggers us, it will cause an exaggerated response to situations that invoke that emotion. It can also embed a memory of a situation into our long term memory where in other people the same memory would not be noteworthy and would not be remembered long term. It would simply fade away.

This can be good in some cases, but in other cases it can impact on our professional ability. Our emotions do not necessarily respect the work-home boundary, because the wiring in our mind does not have such a boundary. We need to have emotional intelligence and be aware of how the unique workings of our mind can impact our work.

This can affect our planners Sarah and Abby in unique ways. Abby, whilst less experienced, may have a strong memory of a previous site visit where she learnt a valuable lesson and so it makes her more attuned to picking up important details at this site. The emotions felt in that experience bring potentially similar situations to prominence.

Conversely Sarah may have a fear of dogs and the presence of a dog on a neighbouring site may limit her ability to form new memories, as her negative experience causes her not to pay attention to information and practice good encoding.

So how can I store memories better?

So how can this be applied to your work?

  • Memories fade over time – this is just the brain housekeeping. Remember in your professional capacity you need to make useful notes as your memory will inevitably fade. It may seem unique at the time, but your mind will try to link it and absorb it into similar events. That is how it works. So if you don’t want this to happen you need to have a good record keeping system, that does not rely on your mind.
  • Use it if you don’t want to lose it – the adage is true that you need to revisit memories if you want to consolidate them deeper into your memory. Relive them, revisit them via different pathways and associations. This will form a better path for when you do need to recall the information. 
  • Emotions affect memory storage – practice good emotional intelligence to better manage your memory (and your emotions and behaviour). Your emotional response to a trigger is just as re-programmable as any other part of your mind. See neuroplasticity. If you are anxious and replay situations in your mind, you are consolidating these situations into your mind. This will give you a skewed take on the world. 
  • Human memory is associative – your memory is unique to you and is the sum total of your experiences in life, filtered by your unique brain. Each person will use their memory quite differently. Keep this in mind when dealing with others as each person really is unique. Learn other ways to associate information to give yourself flexibility in your thinking and better memory storage. Use all your senses and skills to associate thoughts with other thoughts. Don’t pigeon hole yourself as a ‘visual learner’ or an ‘auditory learner’. Challenge yourself to explore many learning styles. This builds both your skills and your ability to remember. 

Join us next post for a look at the final stage of the memory process – how our minds recall information. Issues at this stage of the process are in fact responsible for most forgetting. These can be overcome!

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

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

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