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If you stop and think about the amount of information stored in your memory, it is pretty amazing that your brain can hold all of that and still make room for all of the new things you will learn over the rest of your life. Fortunately, with an understanding of how our memory works, you can enhance the way you store and recall information (i.e., study for an exam).

Three Levels – Sensory, Short Term & Long Term

Memory is organized into three levels, each with its own limitations.  Sensory memory allows our brain to take all of the information coming in from our sensory systems (e.g., eye, ears, nose) and hold on to it for a moment so that the information can be processed, organized, and interpreted.  For example, if we flash an image to your eyes, your sensory memory maintains that image for a fraction of a second to give you more time to understand the information coming in from your eyes.

Sensory information that is relevant to us at the moment or a memory we are thinking about are stored in short term memory, often referred to as working memory. Everything else that we need to save for later goes to long term memory. Read about these two and Miller’s Magic Number:

Read: Learning and Memory (http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/learning/memory.html)

NOTE: The above article includes a discussion of short-term memory and explains that within it we can store iconic and acoustic information.  To help avoid some confusion, think about the difference between sensory and short-term memory in terms of whether you are actually experiencing the sensation or merely thinking about it.  So, for example, if I flash an image of a panda bear the information about what your eyes took in would be stored briefly in your sensory memory.  However, even without seeing a panda you can picture in your mind what it looks like.  We can process our memories of sounds and sights just like any other information in our short-term memory, but for our purposes we will ignore what they list as "the three basic operations" of short-term memory and leave the echoic and iconic stuff for sensory memory.

Chunking: Because short term memory is limited to Miller’s Magic Number, it is a lot harder to memorize one 10-digit number (9495214716) than it is to remember five 2-digit numbers (94-95-21-47-16). Chunk things together into meaningful units can help you encode and store information.

Three Processes – Encode, Store, & Retrieval

Who was the first president of the United States? That is not information that you likely use on a daily basis, but you nonetheless learned, retained, and just accessed that from your memory. Read the first two paragraphs of the following for definitions of encoding, storage, and retrieval:

Read: Memory (http://allpsych.com/psychology101/memory.html)

Next, watching this short video that describes memory in terms of a network of neural links in the brain. Note that the video goes on to describe two ways to effectively encode information…

Watch: Understanding Memory (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grZuwo_YlY0)

As the video explained, one method is to repeat things over and over again. This is known as maintenance rehearsal. If you want to memorize a phone number, you could repeat it to yourself over and over again until you have encoded the information well enough that it will be stored and available for retrieval whenever you need it.

One last note on storage… despite what this guy has to say about it, your storage capacity seems to be limitless. If you can encode it in a meaningful way and retrieve it regularly you can store it.

Watch: The Simpsons - No Room In My Brain (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dbDJzDV1CM)