We continue this month’s blog topic – Memory. Human memory. See previous posts for an introduction to this topic and the first step in memory Encoding Information, and the second post on the second step in memory: Storing Information.
Over this series of posts we will look at the three steps of memory:
- identifying information and encoding it to your memory (see here)
- storing memories (see here)
- recalling memories (today’s topic)
In the final post for the month we will wrap up our look at memory.
Step 3: Recalling Information
This step is where most people encounter the consequence of a failure in any part of their memory process. It is only when you want to recall something and find that you can’t that you discover you have a problem. It is important to understand that using your memory well requires you to address any shortcomings in all three steps in the process. We will revisit this is the final post of this topic.
For now, let’s see what happens in the recall process so we understand how that final, but crucial, step works.
How your mind searches for a memory
Firstly, your mind does not “search” all your memories like a computer would search a hard drive for information (i.e. methodically scan everything chronologically). As with the analogy used previously, brain wiring is like roads or pathways. When you ask your mind to recall a memory it uses the same pathway to access the information as it did when it learnt the information.
It is this associative memory that allows humans to have our complex intelligence. We can find patterns and associations to learn valuable insights from incomplete information.
So the key to your memory is understanding how your mind makes associations.
If a memory has been created with several associations, it therefore has several pathways for recall as well. Multiple associations give your mind some redundancy. It has several roads to get to that information.
Recalling a memory will also change it
Vitally, every time a brain pathway is traveled to get to information, it shapes both the brain’s wiring and the information itself. It strengthens future recall of the memory by that pathway, over time it decreases access by other unused pathways and it “taints” the information.
Why does it “taint” the information? Well, it is not possible to recall something without changing the memory. Information in the brain is not static like a fact printed on a piece of paper than can go back in the file unchanged. When you remember it, you will change it in some way. Your mind will associate thoughts or new information with the old information. New information is added with the old. This is simply how the brain works. Encoding one thing and decoding another are overlapping processes. We cannot trust our memory of a situation to be stable and true.
The brain is pruned and re-organised for adult life
The young adult brain undergoes change in three of its major structures to prepare for adulthood. When aged between 11 and 14, a child’s brain “blossoms” and creates more connections, between 14 and 25 the child’s brain undergoes intensive pruning and reorganisation and is losing many connections. The young adult needs to form new connections to this information or the information will be forgotten.
There are three major parts of the brain which undergo significant change in this young adult period and two of those (limbic cortex and pre-frontal cortex) are vital to the functioning of the memory process. This explains why teenagers in particular can be very forgetful, but it appears this process does not conclude until young adulthood.
So keep this in mind when dealing with younger people, though its not just young adults…
The brain also weakens as it ages
From the fifties onwards, the brain starts to lose cells. These losses weaken the brain’s pathways. This can lead to difficulties in recall. The good news is that it is a use it or lose it situation.
As connections weaken as cells are lost, travelling those connections again will cause the brain to maintain that route. Like any good maintenance program, it will fill in any cracks left by lost cells and keep the pathway in service. So it is really important to keep recalling information which you wish to keep accessing, as this is signalling to the brain that this pathway is important. This can be difficult for professionals who move into managerial or administrative roles as they are not revisiting the professional tasks regularly. It is really important to keep skills active in your mind by dipping in to those memories regularly. The good news is that you can activate those pathways by merely thinking about them – it is not necessary to actually undertake the process in real life. Visualizing the process is often enough to reactivate the pathways. A possible productive use of mental sparetime in those lengthy management meetings.
Other issues as we age relate to multi-tasking and learning new information (i.e. encoding new information as memories). Older adults will need more focus and attention to learn new tasks, but the process of learning new information is very valuable to the brain at this stage. By accepting that a little extra concentration is now needed to learn new information, people can defy the ageist stereotype encapsulated in the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. When learning new skills, aim to avoid distractions and other things competing for your attention, as this will give you more success.
So how can I recall better?
So how can this be applied to your work? You can help yourself to recall better.
- Use cues to help recall – Sitting in front of a computer all day can make it hard to remember a project distinctly from other similar projects. Use a visual cue such as a photograph taken on site to prompt better recall.
- Be aware accessing a memory can change it – Say that you access a memory in order to perform a task which needs doing, but you get interrupted without completing the task. It is really easy for your mind to falsely remember that you did complete the task – it is true you intended to do the task and perhaps this is what the mind attaches to that memory. This can leave crucial tasks unfinished and the worst thing is your memory will convince you that it was done. Have a good process to revisit tasks which you are interrupted from to avoid this issue.
- Use different pathways to access information – build strong and diverse associations in your mind to allow yourself some redundancy in how you access information.
- Use it or lose it – be aware of how important it is to access and revisit information to retain memory. Be aware of how memory (and the mind) is affected in young adulthood and as we start to enter old age.
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