Every day, I hear complaints about memory loss from family, friends, and patients. Let's first consider how memory works. Memory functions through these three stages:
- Information Acquisition
- Information Consolidation
- Information Retrieval
Information Acquisition. Before you can remember something, you first must learn the information. This is called acquisition. This acquired information is then stored in temporary nerve-cell pathways in the brain. These pathways contain short-term memories.
Information Consolidation. In order for something to be placed in long-term memory, the nerve pathways have to be strengthened and reinforced. This process, called consolidation, can take weeks or even months. There are several factors that affect whether or not information will be put into long-term memory. For example, you are more likely to retain information if it relates to pre-existing memories or somehow stimulates you emotionally. Also, it doesn't hurt to have a good night's sleep, as this too helps you retain information.
Information Retrieval. When people retrieve information, they are literally "recalling" it from the nerve pathways. The brain reactivates a particular pathway, and the information is remembered. This process can be fast or slow, depending on how familiar you are with the information and how well you have learned it in the first place.
Next, I want to bring to your attention an excellent article by Professor Robert A. Bjork, who is a distinguished memory expert from UCLA. The article "How Memory Works: 10 Things Most People Get Wrong" was published last month - you can read it here.