Facts About How the Memory Works

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Is it becoming harder to remember certain things?

The human memory is a fascinating and enthralling component. Whether directly or indirectly, each event or experience that an individual undergoes leaves some type of imprint on their memory. For better or worse, memory is something that usually sticks with people unless they undergo certain traumatic incidents or experience memory issues later in life. 

A thorough understanding of how the memory works can be quite enlightening and even serve as a deterrent from certain choices that may negatively impact memory later in life.

Scientists are continuously learning how memory works and how it affects all parts of our lives. Memory is influenced by many things, such as food intake, lifestyle habits, medication, and other contributing factors. How we treat and care for our bodies can determine whether our memory functions last a lifetime or begin to regress over time. Additionally, addiction to alcohol, drugs, and other substances has been scientifically proven to have negative effects on learning and memory, and other areas of life.

The ins and outs of how the memory works

When most people think about how memory works, they think of the brain or a constant stream of information, inferences, and facts being processed due to various neurons. While this is a part of the inner working of the human memory, it is also only the tip of the iceberg. The true, unmasked understanding of how the memory works can be largely found within the various stages of one's memory.

The human memory can be segmented into three basic stages: sensory, short-term, and long-term. Each stage of the memory is important in its own way. Without one, the others could not function appropriately.

Stage 1:  Sensory memory

This segment of the human memory picks up on environmental factors – such as colors, smells, sounds, and other external factors – and then processes its findings accordingly. After the environmental factors are picked up on and processed, they are usually stored in the mind for various, brief periods of time. However, the work of the sensory memory occurs rapidly – between 0.5 and four seconds. After the completion of the sensory memory, the next stage of the human memory kicks into gear.

Stage 2: Short-term memory

Also commonly referred to as the active memory, the active, short-term memory pertains to the current information that human beings are aware of and consciously processing from moment to moment. Some examples of the active memory at work entail the mental processing of information which is being read (such as this article) or watched on a screen.

The processing time for the short-term memory ranges between 20 and 30 minutes. With certain exceptions, the information that humans pick up on is generally forgotten. 

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Stage 3: Long-term memory

This final stage plays a significant role in the human mind. Ultimately, long-term memory relates to the human ability to store information in the mind for later use. Most times, people are not aware of the information that is stored due to long-term memory; however, a certain awareness may follow when they need to retrieve various bits of information for certain reasons. Some examples of long-term memory include the ability to recall information during a test, the ability to maintain professional patterns during work, and following certain routines in one's day-to-day life.

How does the memory internalize information?

While a clear understanding of the sensory memory, active memory, and long-term memory are important, to truly comprehend how the memory works requires understanding how memory is organizing and processing information. 

Many scientists remain in search of all the answers regarding exactly how the memory internalizes and organizes information. Thankfully, there are still certain discoveries which are extremely helpful and indicative of the workings of the human memory.

Clustering

Put simply, the memory organizes and stores information by engaging in a process known as "clustering." When the human memory "clusters" information, it essentially sorts information into various groups or subsections. Therefore, the information becomes easier and quicker for each person to recall when needed. The clustering process occurs during the long-term stage of the human memory.

Semantic network model

The human memory also organizes information by partaking in a simple, yet effective process known as the semantic network model. In essence, the semantic network model asserts that certain occurrences can serve as psychological triggers for related incidents, people, or things. For example, someone who frequently visits New York City may associate this area with certain attributes; they could also be reminded of a certain person they met or certain experiences they had while in the city.

It’s important to note that the semantic network model is a probable theory, unlike organizational clustering, which is thoroughly backed and supported by science.

Are people capable of improving their memory?

We can all improve the quality of our memory – and how it works and processes information – by engaging in certain activities which are not only healthy on a general level, but also mentally beneficial.

Studies have found connections between nutrition and memory. One of the best ways to improve one's memory is by eating well and consuming a nutritious diet. The regular consumption of foods like curry, walnuts, cherries, cauliflower, and broccoli can not only shield the health and wellness of one’s brain, but also promote the growth of additional brain cells.

Another simple method for improving the effectiveness of their memory comes from habitual exercise. As it relates to memory, exercise boosts the workings of the brain and promotes the multiplication of various nerve cells. Exercise moreover triggers brain chemicals which boost innate health, critical cognitive functions.

There are many ways for people to squeeze exercise into even the busiest of schedules. Doing pushups every morning, ending the day with a series of jumping jacks, or even going for a run on a day off can have wonderful mental benefits, especially over time as one ages. Investing in a gym or setting up sessions with a physical trainer are also great ways of getting oneself in the habit of exercising, and getting a good night’s sleep can set you up for better memory retention.  

Get help

Events happening in our daily lives can also impact memory and its various functions. This is especially true for people who may be going through difficult or challenging times. Numerous studies have affirmed the negative impacts that stress, anxiety, and depression can have on the mind (and memory), especially as one gets older.

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Is it becoming harder to remember certain things?

Talking with a professional therapist can help teach coping mechanisms to better handle stress, and in turn, potentially improve memory. Working memory (WM) training and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have both been shown to help improve memory, as well as reduce symptoms of anxiety. CBT and relaxation therapies have been shown to help patients improve sleep, and in turn, improve their working memories. 

With online therapy, such as through BetterHelp, you can now work with a counselor from the convenience of your home, office, or any place where you have an internet connection. You also are able to choose from a wider selection of therapists to ensure you find the right fit for your needs and personality. Online therapy has been shown to be just as effective as in-person therapy.

Takeaway

There is still much left unknown about the human memory and how it works. However, we do know that daily life events can impact our memory and its various functions. This is especially true for people who may be going through difficult or challenging times. Countless studies have affirmed the negative impacts that stress, anxiety, and depression can have on the mind (and memory) especially as one gets older. The good news is there are things we can all do to help improve our memories. Professional online counseling through BetterHelp can also strengthen our memories by treating underlying mental health conditions that may negatively impact our ability to remember.
Improve your memory with professional support
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