Memory Works – Part 1

Our memories and more particularly our memory failures get the blame for a lot of our learning problems.  So what is memory, where is it, what is it doing and how do you get it to work better?  Memory Works – Part 1 deals mainly with short term or working memory.  Part 2 will deal with long term memory.

Memory is a function of an incredibly amazing thing called your brain.  Whilst it’s true that some rare people get an extra dose of memory ability, mostly, if your memory isn’t working it’s because you haven’t read the instruction book.  The first thing to understand about your brain is that it is a muscle.  Just like the muscles in your arms, the more you work it, the stronger and more noticeable they get.  Inside your brain there are networks of neurons that grow in density, the more you use them.  That doesn’t mean your brain gets bigger, but it does get heavier.  The more neurons you grow, the faster you go.

Scientists think there are three types of memory:

  1. Sensory memory – the input you get from your environment via your senses – the things you can see, hear, smell, touch, taste right now this very moment. For example – I feel something wet in my shoe, I look down and see that the cat, I smell urine.  Mostly these memories are very short lived unless you notice something interesting in which case you are going to activate…
  2. Short term or working memory – This is the spot where you are able to think about things that are happening now, process information, solve in the moment problems. For example – I deduct that the cat has peed on me.  I want to get my shoe off and I want to kill the cat.  I have to work out what to do first.  Scientist think that we can process +/- 4 things at a time in working memory.  Working memory is usually only a few minutes long and then we forget about it unless we really need to remember in which case we are going to activate…
  3. Long term memory – This is the spot where you save important information that you will need to retrieve later just like doing a “click save” on your computer, keeping your information for another day.   In the case of my cat, I want to remember not to wear those shoes until they are washed and not to let the cat back in the house.  So I need to activate long term memory.  Your long term memory has virtually limitless file space (unlike your computer).

What goes wrong?   When it comes to learning, the main problems arise in short term memory – processing what we notice and in managing the “click, save” to long term memory.  Here are some of the things you can do get the most out of your short term or working memory:

Reduce Distractions:

Remember that short term memory only has a few processing slots.  For a start, if you are filling one of those slots with texting a friend whilst trying to solve maths problems, you are going to struggle.  If your friend tells you a juicy story you are now thinking about that and texting and only half doing maths.  Turn off your phone and reduce distractions.  Solving maths requires all your slots.


Humans are generally lazy learners.  They don’t want to have to learn something that is completely new or doesn’t relate to their lives.  However they do like to more about things that they know something about.  What does this mean?  It means I’m probably never going to be a commercial airline pilot because I know nothing about avionics however I might read a book on cat behaviour modification because I have some experience in that.  When you come to study, you need to relate the new information to something you know.  Your brain likes it when things chunk together into groups of information.


Intentional focussing can make a big difference to your short term memory processing.  This is the difference between going to class and zoning out and going to class and zoning in.  When you zone in, you listen, take notes, ask questions, go over things in your head.  You are laying pathways in your brain that might become a long term memory file.  Just telling yourself, listen up, this is important, can make the difference between remembering it later… or not.

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