This might be a rather boring post depending on who you are. I feel like talking about psychology. Now I used to talk about psychology nonstop but that has certainly changed in recent months. I still love it and I continue to read up on it but I have not been nerding out as much as I used to. I feel like talking about a topic that everyone has interest in: memory. I don’t think anyone really reads this blog so I’m writing this to an audience assuming they know nothing little about the topic. Psych majors, you’re going to get a review!
We live our life based on our memories.
Even when we ruminate about the future, we are basing our expectations on memories. For example, traffic is usually so backed up at this time; I’m going to take another route. I had a terrible experience with Delta; I’m going to take Jet Blue the next time. I despised math in high school; I’m going major in English and stay far away from computer science and physics. I really enjoyed working independently; I’m going to open my own practice instead of work at a hospital. These are just some examples about how our past experiences influence our future decisions no matter how small or large. I know it is just common sense but sometimes we forget these things. We forget why we have this aversion or inclination to certain things.
Now there are several kinds of memories. There’s sensory memory which is extremely short in duration. Sensory memory is there for a few seconds and it goes away quickly. You sense things automatically without conscious effort. This should not be confused with short-term memory which can be turned into long-term memory through rehearsal and other factors. Short-term memory lasts up to 30 seconds. For instance, getting the pizza parlor’s phone number from the YellowPages (talking old school here!) and rehearsing it in your head for a few seconds until you go to the landline phone (old school again!) and dial to order. Those digits usually go away but you can easily memorize that number if you feel so inspired. To clarify, studying for a test the night before and passing the next day is not evidence of good short-term memory. That’s your long-term memory you’re talking about! Short-term memory does not last for hours or even minutes; all of that is long-term. Long-term memory and short-term memory differ in several ways; one of which is that short-term memory has a capacity (7 plus or minus 2 items). Long-term memory has no limits. We certainly remember more than 7 things in our lives! The amount of memories we can hold seems infinite. How the heck is that physically possibly? What are memories physically made out of? I don’t know the answer to that but I assume that cognitive neuroscientists are working on it.
There are even more kinds of memories: autobiographical (remembering events that happened in your life), procedural (remembering how to ride a bike, how to make a peanut butter sandwich), semantic (facts; 1+1=2, the first president of America is George Washington), working memory (manipulating conscious information in complex tasks). All but working memory are considered long-term memories.
What makes us remember some things and why do we forget? Why is it that we can remember your most embarrassing day in 4th grade but you can’t remember the name of a good friend of yours from high school? There are several theories. Gosh I don’t know where to begin. Well first of all, you probably didn’t actually forget. You are just having some difficulty retrieving the information. There’s so much crap packed in our brains that it might take some time to pull it out from memory. Everyone experiences those times when they can’t remember the name of that movie and it randomly pops up in their minds hours later while eating dinner. While we might not consciously search for that information, our brains are doing their job of searching for us while we go about doing other things.
Some reasons why you might remember certain things is that the event was highly emotionally charging. Some emotionally charging events could be when you won the lottery, when your cat died, when you got into a car accident. On the other hand, some events are so excruciatingly emotional (such as sexual abuse or being put up for adoption at the age of 9 and getting sent to a new family/culture/country and learning an entirely new language…) that people have no memories of those experiences. The Freudian reason is that it is a self-defense mechanism – to protect us from the pain those memories could cause. I’m not really sure why this happens, but those memories can be retrieved with therapy.
Our memories are powerful. They are used as evidence in eye witness testimonies to convict someone was guilty or innocent in a courtroom. When there is an eyewitness that appears absolutely certain that yes that is the man that robbed my shop, that is the most persuasive piece a jury needs to make a decision.
We should be cautious though. Our memories are not like videos that replay over and over. Every time we think back to a certain event, we remember bits and pieces that we want to remember. Because our memories are reconstructive, they are prone to manipulation. A lot of times we remember things that never even happened! If people ask certain leading questions then we might create a memory and believe that it actually happened that way. Elizabeth Loftus did some very innovative studies that provide evidence that it’s incredibly easy to implant memories in people’s heads through changing the way you word questions. One of my favorite studies was when participants saw an ad for Disney World with Bugs Bunny in the picture. She asked participants if they shook hands with Bugs if they ever visited Disney. I don’t remember the statistics but a lot of people claimed that they remember this childhood event. Guess what. Bugs doesn’t exist in Disney! Another reason why our memories are prone to falsification is based on our past memories. Try to remember the last time you went to your favorite restaurant. You might not remember exactly what you ordered, but you use past information to make an educated guess on what you ordered. You absolutely love the bulgolgi and kimbap at the Korean restaurant, so you assume that that is what you probably ordered the last time. You might not actually remember the sequence of how you ordered and how you paid the check, but you use information from past restaurant experiences to guess that you politely asked the waiter for what you wanted (maybe practiced it in broken Korean 😉 ), paid via debit card in the little black book thing, signed your name, filled in a tip, and left. That is the “script” of going to a restaurant. There are tons of scripts that you follow every day; these scripts help you remember what happened.
Think about all of those photos that you look back on. I bet that if some of those photos did not exist, you would not remember that event. Photos and videos help us remember events. Actually sometimes we don’t even actually remember the event but we only remember it because of the video or photos. For example, if you watch a video when you were 4 years old playing in the snow in the backyard, you probably don’t really remember that particular day, but you remember it only because of the video. I’m not sure if I’m explaining it clearly.
When I traveled this summer, I wrote in my journal every single night. I took quick notes about everything I did that day and the thoughts that went through my mind. I still write in a journal here and there to remember certain days. It is entertainment to read back and watch yourself grow through your writings. I learned that some things that were a big deal back then do not matter at all anymore. Now that I know this, I always try not to make a big deal about things because it probably won’t matter in a few days. I encourage you all to challenge yourselves and write some things down in a private journal.
It has been scaring me how quickly the time went by. Yesterday I had to ask my friend whether Michael Jackson died this past June or in 2009. I just cannot believe how quickly the time goes by now that I’m older. The time has been slipping through my hands and I feel a bit stagnant where I am right now. Anyway, as I get older it is more difficult to remember certain things because it seems like the days just mush together and it’s hard to tweeze apart when I did what. I do remember that this time four years ago I started a new job as a transcriptionist that I held for 2.5 years.
At work, several of the patients I see are there for their memories to be evaluated. They are often older people who are losing their keys and forgetting appointments more than usual. Now memory loss occurs naturally with age because our brains shrink so a little bit of trouble retaining information is nothing to be worried about. However, I do see individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia. I want to cry sometimes. These people are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, siblings. Some of them cannot remember the name of their loved ones or even what year it is. The doctor taught me a bit about these aging disorders. While Alzheimer’s and dementia patients have memory issues, they differ in where the memory problems are. Alzheimer’s patients cannot encode new information so the memories are never formed whereas most dementia patients encode the memories but have problems retrieving the information. I thought that was interesting. I wish there was something to cure Alzheimer’s disease but at the same time, we are living much longer than I think we’re supposed to. We can keep our bodies alive for longer but our minds have not evolved quickly enough to keep those connections strong for years beyond what they were programmed for.
I’m sure everyone wants to learn how to enhance their memories (except these people). Here are some tips:
1. Exercise. Good for your overall brain.
2. Sleep properly. Your memories build during that time! Studying the night before a test is better than studying the day of. Better yet, study for the week before little by little instead of procrastinating and cramming! You’ll retain it better. Shouldn’t college be more than just passing tests? Don’t get me started on that topic.
3. Match words with visual images. The more bizarre and unique the images, the more likely you are to remember the word. We actually use this tactic at one of my jobs as a “brain trainer”. It works well. I use this to remember the thousands of GRE words I’m currently trying to memorize.
4. Chunking – instead of remembering NFLCBSNBCIBMMTV, it’s easier to remember NBC CBS IBM MTV. You can do the same with phone numbers.
5. Mnemonic devices. The funnier and crazier, the more likely you are to remember it! They could be acronyms (Roy G. Biv, Sohcahtoa, or just things about the actual word (ostentatious – it means showy or pretentious. Beca helped me with some GRE words and her mnemonic for this word was to remember a guy named Austin giving an overly flashy engagement ring to his girlfriend. It works to this day I remember it!). Additionally, make meaningful associations. I remember some people’s phone numbers by pairing it with someone’s birthday. Another thing that works well for me is memorizing where on the keypad you press to dial the numbers. The last four digits of my mom’s phone number is 5805 which is right down the middle of the keypad. Easy enough!
6. Put it in a song! (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona Arkansas) This is a fun song with the world countries (it is kind of outdated)
7. Like I mentioned before, document! Take pictures, write things down.
8. Memory games and puzzles. Honestly I don’t think these games actually work. It works by the placebo effect though (hey, placebos still work, right?). Placebos are powerful. It also works as a confidence booster. If you do memory games for weeks you will probably believe that it is helping you in some way. You will be more cognizant of your memory and therefore more likely to remember things since you’re actually trying harder.
9. Be positive. If you say you don’t have a good memory then you will believe it enough until it’s true.
10. When studying for a test, don’t think about how much you hate this subject and how you’ll never use this information ever again in the future. You surely won’t remember it if you deem it as trivial. Instead, try your best to find interest in the topic or at least pretend that you like it and you think that it’s important. The more value you put on something, the more likely you are to remember it. You’ll remember the date of your wedding but you will have a harder time remembering what you ate for breakfast the morning before unless it was an extraordinary out of this world banging awesome super special breakfast or a poisonous horrible breakfast that gave you salmonella.