The idea that people have good and bad memories is slightly inaccurate, or at least incomplete. Memories are formed through processes in the brain that we understand quite well, and there are many proven techniques that can help to improve your memory skills. Both nature and nurture factor into the quality of one’s memory, making this a fascinating and flexible subject of study.
Imagine that you stroll into your kitchen when your mind goes blank and you have absolutely no idea why you came into the room. Think of the last time someone came up with a big smile of recognition, and you didn’t have the slightest idea what their name was. Have you ever made plans with someone, only to completely forget when and where and with whom you are supposed to meet?
Moments like this may lead you to believe that you have a “bad” memory, or are already showing signs of aging and memory loss. However, the human brain is an incredibly complex and mysterious machine, and our powers of memory are some of the most enigmatic elements within it.
While some people do appear to have a naturally good memory, and can accurately summon names, events and dates from thin air, there is a lot more nuance to memory than simply labeling a person’s ability as “good” or “bad”. Both nature and nurture are involved, in addition to a wide range of other factors we’ll be discussing below.
How Do We Form Memories?
Before we can understand what makes a memory “good” or “bad”, we should understand how memories are formed in the first place. Due to the incredible amount of information that we take in every day, an efficient system is required for us to exist, form memories, think logically, make connections and a thousand other things we so naturally take for granted. The process of memory formation is therefore broken down into three steps: Encoding, Storage and Retrieval.
Encoding occurs when we take in sensory input and change it into a form that the brain can handle. These three types of encoding are visual, acoustic and semantic. For example, if you see the name on a waitresses’ name tag, you store that information visually (as a picture). If you then repeat the name aloud when you speak to the waitress, you may encode the information acoustically (as a sound). Finally, if she shares the same name as a teacher, friend, aunt or favorite celebrity, you may store the information semantically (linked to a meaning).
These encoded pieces of information are then moved to your short-term memory (STM), where they can last for 0-30 seconds, unless they are rehearsed or consolidated into long-term memory. Memory consolidation is dependent on the passage of time; the longer you actively hold a piece of short-term memory, the more resistant it becomes to competing stimuli or other factors that can simply wipe your slate clean. When encoded memories are stored in the short-term memory, those memories can only be placed in 5-9 “slots”. However, memory can also be “chunked”, a way of bypassing this low limit for the amount of “things” we can remember at any one time.
If information is deemed “important” or “meaningful”, then it will be shifted into our long-term memory. Repetition and rehearsal is critical at this stage; the more you interact with or consider information in the short-term memory, the better chance it will have of entering the long-term memory.
When a memory is initially formed, the hippocampus consolidates all of the information from that memory into a single idea, but over time, different parts of the brain are able to link up with that neocortical region, through molecular, cellular and neuronal changes, making the memory accessible from various “angles”. Storage like this, as a long-term memory, can protect a memory for decades.
Retrieval of memories is the final aspect, and is often the hardest one to explain. Depending on how the information is organized, either naturally or intentionally, it may be easy or quite difficult to retrieve. Long-term memory is best triggered through association, such as hearing a love song from long ago that takes you back to a crystal-clear memory you hadn’t thought of in years.
Why Do We Forget?
Now that we somewhat understand the mechanism by which we remember, we should also look at why we forget. There are four main causes behind our “forgetting”, which leads so many people to doubt themselves and succumb to having a “bad memory” for the rest of their life.
Retrieval Failure – Over time, particularly for short-term memories, if the information isn’t regularly rehearsed or returned to, the neuronal pathways decay, and the memory fades, never having made it to our long-term memory.
Failure to Store – Some information that we take in, even repeatedly, isn’t stored because it isn’t essential to the memory or meaning itself. For example, you may be able to remember the color of the building where you turn right to enter your street, but you won’t be able to recall the number of windows on the front of the house; that part of the information was less relevant, and thus didn’t make it to long-term memory.
Interference – Our memories need to be distinct in order to remain clear and neatly organized. When similar memories, places, faces, names and experiences are all stored together, it can be difficult to separate them into distinctly different packets. For example, remembering the detailed events of one family reunion over another, when they were held at the same place with the same family members, would be more difficult than if the reunions were held in a different location each year.
Motivated Forgetting – Some things that we experience are either consciously or unconsciously forgotten, particularly if they are painful or traumatic. While these events may make their way into our long-term memory, through the acts of suppression (conscious) and repression (unconscious), we are able to obfuscate or fully “forget” these memories. There are ways to access these memories, such as hypnosis, but the concepts of repression and suppression remain controversial in the psychological field.
Genetic and Biological Advantages (Nature)
Some of the processes of remembering are within our control, and some are not. Similarly, there are some natural factors that can lead to a person possessing a stronger memory, as well as some nurturing elements of our cognitive development, training, childhood, and attention faculties that can help to boost our memory, even later in life.
On the natural side of things, it must also be admitted that some people seem predisposed to having an incredible memory. The concept of having a “photographic” memory has been widely studied, and it is found that some people do have amazing powers of recall over event that transpired years or decades earlier, down to the foods they ate on a particular day as a child. In one large-scale study, it was found that people with such heightened episodic memory (a condition termed “highly superior autobiographical memory” or HSAM), do have enlarged areas in the temporal and parietal lobes, both of which are linked to memory storage and retrieval. This gives such people an increased organizational capacity, in the same way some people are able to memorize thousands of digits of pi in a matter of hours.
Genetically speaking, studies have found that certain genes affect the density of dopamine receptors in the brain; dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps us to recall episodic memories from the past. In the study, those with certain gene activations enjoyed a higher density of dopamine receptors in the hippocampus, and also had stronger powers of recall as they aged.
How to Improve Memory (Nurture)
There are many ways to improve your memory, thanks to neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to adapt and change throughout our life, even in our old age. While some people may study to become a memory champion using proven techniques for ordering and classifying information, there are also plenty of other techniques and lifestyle changes you can apply that will keep your brain sharp and your memory skills on the path to perpetual improvement.
Challenging your brain with new activities forces the brain to create new neural pathways and form unique connections; these activities should be cumulative and rewarding, and are best when they’re outside your comfort zone, such as learning a new language or teaching yourself how to play an instrument.
A healthy diet and regular exercise can ensure that your brain has all the nutrients and raw materials it needs to succeed, as well as a healthy flow of neurotransmitters and dopamine, which can help in our powers of recall. Lowering stress levels, spending time with friends in social settings, and doing entertaining things that elicit laughter are also linked to increased powers of memory.
On a more intentional level, you should pay close attention to experiences and events, relate incoming information to memories you already have stored, and involve as many senses as possible when taking in new information. All of this can increase the likelihood of short-term memories moving to long-term memory storage. Furthermore, you should rehearse or repeat information whenever possible (i.e., names, dates and numbers), or use mnemonic devices to associate information you want to retain with images, words or symbols.
A Final Word
As this article has shown, there are many complex and interconnected facets of memory, so simply throwing up your hands and saying, “I have a bad memory” is doing yourself a disservice. Understanding what you can do differently to boost your memory retention is the first step towards improvement. Consciously engaging and absorbing the world, rather than simply passing through it, can help your brain move information from sensory memory into short-term memory, and eventually into the long-term memory held deep and durably in our mind.