How Memory Works


Last month, when I was in Bangalore. I was chatting up with Nishant – a good friend of mine who happens to be an undergrad at Stanford. He was the one who introduced me to Behavior Design in the first place 2 years back since then It’s become an obsession of mine. Only after he told me that whatever I used to do in my daily life was Behavior Design in essence, was when I began to explore the topic it was like I stumbled upon something so amazing. I never really liked to memorize stuff and never did in school as well. I used to make-up all sorts of perverted connections to topics and still manage to get A’s and B’s throughout school and college. Even for the subjects I hated! 😛

So when Nishant introduced me to this area, I suddenly had all sorts of terms to understand the science of it.  Since, then Behavior Change has been an area I’m passionately curious about to see to what extent can I use it in all areas of my life. You can see, I often get sidetracked when I begin to talk about how my tryst with Behavior Design started.

Dr. William C. Dement, who is widely regarded as the father of sleep medicine and the leading authority on sleep and sleep disorders. Nishant began to explain in one of our “What have you been up to” talks that we have whenever he is back in India during his summer / winter breaks. You can read more about him and his research here.

I bring about sleep into the discussion here because generally people believe in staying up hours or even days before the exams. Even I have done it before and it is not at all rewarding. I have had better success when I changed this strategy drastically during my final year in college. I scored better marks without burning out. The whole practice of Behavior Design is to sustain tiny habits for a long time and forming a system that doesn’t let you fail. Humans have a funny idea about willing it through the home stretch as some of my friends who term the last week rush during exams. Willpower fails 90% of the time. It’s much more efficient and easy to develop a better habit to learn by forming connections. Even on the days during before exams, I sometimes slept for close to 8 hrs a day.

Anything that can be learned falls broadly into two categories: things you need to understand intellectually, and skills you need to be able to perform. Most things you want to learn involve a mix of the two. Programming is both theory and practice. Math involves an understanding of the ideas, but requires rigorous dedication to the method. There is business theory and business savvy. The list goes on.

Memory happens in 3 steps –

1> Encoding:– Once we come in contact with information to be remembered our brains develop a “code,” which becomes a record of the experience. Our memory can be affected at this stage if the information is not coded in a way that makes it easy to recall when needed. For example, we may recognize someone in the office where we work, but outside of that environment we may have difficulty in recognizing him or her. This is because the face was coded in association with work and outside of that coding strategy the memory is not recognizable. We lose the context of the memory that is guided by our semantic memory system.

2> Storage:– This is the ability to hold and effectively store a memory. Rehearsal is one of the most important factors involved in retaining the information that we’ve been exposed to. Problems in this stage of memory often occur due to a lack of rehearsal.

3> Retrieval:– This refers to the ability to recall the memory needed. Once the information is successfully stored, it must be retrievable in order to be useful. For information to be retrieved, it first must be stored effectively. Once effectively stored, cues and reminders can help us then retrieve the information.

Remembering that you need to pick up milk before coming home can easily be forgotten as you go through your daily routine. As you drive home and see a convenience store your memory is jogged and you remember the errand. Often it seems as if we have forgotten something even though it was successfully stored. We simply need help in retrieving the memory; we have to remember to recall.

The importance of paying attention to detail cannot be overemphasized. If we become bogged down with too much information and preoccupied with the stress of our daily routine it becomes increasingly more difficult to remember the things we need for later. That’s why relaxation is such an important component to develop effective memory. It is much more difficult to remember things if we add an emotional component of anxiety or depression. Also, it’s important to use any tricks or tools that seem to help you. This is exactly the reason why learning never works if one tries to cram stuff into their heads 24 hours before an exam.

So when your dad or mom says I have trouble remembering where I left the house-keys or I can’t remember so many phone numbers. It’s not that they can’t do it. The process that they usually follow (The Step 1) is often not effective. So after placing the car/house-keys next to the TV. It often helps to tell yourself before doing another task or to someone else next to you that “I have placed the keys next to the TV” but then again very few people have an awareness to do little things like that in a relaxed state before getting with another task.