Processing Memory

How do we create and process Memory?
From Senses to Short-term, Working and
Long-term Memory

A common way of describing memory is that there are three stages:
1.  Immediate or short-term memory,
2. Working memory, and
3. Long-term memory.
Sousa (2001) divided long-term memory into categories. p. 81. These are shown on the lower right side of the chart. These may all be stored in different parts of the brain.

Chart shows memory input  and processing

This illustration was adapted and enhanced from David Sousa, p.38. He adapted and enhanced the original model by Robert Stahl. Similar diagrams are found in many books on the brain. Sousa shows input only from the five senses. although he includes the arrow at the top for past experiences. I added arrows for memory, organize, imagine, and reflect and could have added other mental functions. We do not actually have to see and hear something to imagine it and remember what we imagined.

Most memory begins with input from our senses

Starting on the left side of the diagram, we see the input. This includes all of our senses plus memory, reflections, evaluations, and more. Much of what we experience is either not actually noticed or it is ignored as not important. That is shown by the arrow pointing down. These memories are lost.

Short-term memory

The small part of our experience that we do notice is shown going to a clipboard. This is our immediate or short-term memory. Short-term normally lasts only minutes. At this point again, most of what we noticed we discard as not important. Again the down arrow shows that we don’t remember them. In to keep short-term memories and transfer them to our Working Memory, we need to focus on them, repeat them, associate them with earlier knowledge or experiences, or experience them as tied to emotion. It is important to focus on the main ideas. Once we have moved them to over to Working Memory, it is easier to bring along related information.

Working Memory

The table represents Working Memory.  This is where most students’ class-related memories are stored. To keep this information on the table of Working Memory, we must continually refresh the memories. We can re-read the information. We can organize the information. We can talk about the information. We can use different methods of remembering the information. But generally these memories are maintained only until the final exam (if we can keep them that long) and then discarded in the next 30 days. It’s no wonder we seem to have such short memories. Personal memories often last for years, some for a lifetime.

Long-term memory

Long-term memory is shown by the file cabinet. As office files are stored in different folders, our memories are stores in many different parts of the brain. On the lower right part of the chart there is a list of kinds of memories. I took half of these from Sousa, p. 81. and added others that seemed important.

With office files, we need to know in what file a certain letter was stored if we are to find it again.  In our brain, the hippocampus seems to send bits of a memory to various places in the brain, generally the places where the sense was received. Later, the hippocampus is able, with appropriate cues, to re-collect the various bits of memory (visual, auditory, other senses, meaning, and emotion and restore the memory (more or less like it was originally, to our working memory.

The more often the memory is moved between working memory and long-term memory , the easier it is to retrieve and the longer the memory will last. Some studies show that it may take up to ten or twelve years for our memory to become more or less permanent.

Sousa, speaking of long-term memory.  “We store by similarity, but we retrieve by difference.” p. 143.  When we remember a friend’s dog, we store it along with memories of other dogs we have known. But to retrieve the memory and decide if that’s the friend’s dog we see now, we must focus on what makes this dog different. Perhaps this dog has a long fluffy tail that wags a lot and there is an almost square white patch on his chest.

In biology we would store what we learn about plant and animal cells in the same location. To remember which is the plant cell, we need to know what is different about it. Plant cells have a cell wall and chloroplasts. Animal cells do not.

Working memory can only handle a few items at a time, often described as 5-9 items with an average of 7. Sousa p. 44.  Recent research says the correct number is four. We seem to remember a few more because we chunk the items. “Cats” and “Dogs,” for example, might be experienced as one item.

We can’t expect to study and remember everything in the chapter at the same time. We might learn material one section at a time. This is called “chunking.”  We divide the material into chunks.

Sousa gives several helpful examples of chunking. pp 129-139.  Let us say you want to memorize 3421941621776 (what I would call a lovely number designed to explain chunking.)  Instead of learning 13 random digits, Sousa divides it into familiar chunks: 342 (his house number), 1941 (when the US entered WWII), 62 (his father’s age), and 1776 (Declaration of Independence). I think these are all great except his father’s age. If he needs to remember this number just for a short time, it works. But next year his father will be a year older. But it does illustrate how much easier it is to remember the numbers by dividing them into recognizable chunks.

When we read a word, we don’t read each letter, we see the word “giraffe” for example. When we copy material from the blackboard, it helps to be able to read the entire sentence and then write it down. These are also examples of chunking, chunking letters in a word and chunking words in a sentence. It is easy to copy the sentence:”My brother and I saw a lion that was chasing three zebras.”  It is harder to copy another set of the same twelve words. ” And brother a chasing saw was zebras I three my that and lion. You might be able to chunk 3-5 words at a time. You would not be able to remember the whole “sentence.”  A series of abstract words like  “is, had, which, far, don’t”  (that can not be visualized) is still harder. The hardest to remember are nonsense syllables like “plart, fuing, phlearg, umferan, sozex.”

It is easier to remember information that makes sense to us, information we can visualize or relate to our own experience, information that is organized in a logical way. Students who try to memorize information without understanding it in any way find it is very difficult. They complain that they have a poor memory.

Sousa suggests chunking by categories: Advantages and disadvantages, Similarities and differences, structure and function.  I find that I automatically chunk memories of people and their names along with places where I know people. When I am in Florida and see someone familiar in the grocery store, I run through my categories of Florida people: Do I know her from church? Does she live in my neighborhood? Is she in my writers’ group? Is this someone I went to school with?  Does she work in a store where I often shop?

If this person is someone from a different town, I will have serious trouble recalling her name. If it is someone I knew years ago when I lived in Chicago, I might never figure it out. I’d have to walk up to her, smile, and say, “Hello. I know I should know who you are but my memory isn’t working today. Tell me your name.” And, if it isn’t really someone I know, then it’s no problem. They won’t care. And I can always say. You must remind me of someone I know, maybe someone out of my past. But it was nice to meet you anyway.”

To read other ways of memory

Practical Memory                          Rote Memory                     Mnemonics (memory tricks)

Visual Memory                              Auditory Memory                             Kinesthetic Memory

Relational Memory                      Emotional Memory                       Storytelling in Memory

Multiple Pathways                       Scheduled Reviews

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