The Neuroscience of Memory

Jan 13 2021 | Insights
Woman sitting by a desk, calculating.

Memory refers to the encoding, retention, and recall of information. We break down these processes and explain how repetition helps the retention of learning, which makes coaching such a valuable tool to promote long-lasting changes in behaviour.

In the 1950s, scientists studied a young man who was afflicted with permanent amnesia. Henry Molaison, also known as patient H.M., was unable to form new conscious memories after undergoing brain surgery to treat his intractable epilepsy. Scientists studied him and discovered that learning and memory were linked to particular regions in the brain and distinct biological processes. These discoveries helped to open up further exploration into memory and its related biological processes.

However, many of these high-level neuroscience topics would be difficult for most people to understand. Thankfully, there are ways to break down these concepts to make them easier to explain and digest. This also helps us point out the relationship between memory and learning, and how repetition and regular visiting aids the retention of learning.

What exactly is memory?

Let’s start with a basic explanation of what memory is.

Memory refers to the encodingretention, and recall of information. When a human experiences something, these processes preserve the information in our brain, but they can also recall the information at a later date. As you may know, this isn’t a flawless process. It’s not like a computer where we can search for specific files and store them in convenient folders. It’s a completely biological process that can occasionally stop working.

You may have experienced this before. For example, you could have left your keys in a specific location, gone to bed, then forgotten where they are the next morning. These are small annoyances that can affect anyone, but memory problems can also be related to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

How do we make memories?

The first stage is encoding, the process of storing experiences in a usable form that our brain can store and recall. Once the information has been encoded, it can then be stored in our memory for later retrieval.

However, it’s not as simple as just committing something to memory. Many of our memories are actually stored outside of our awareness. For example, you probably won’t remember what you had for dinner because it’s not really something important to you right now. However, just by reading that question, you may have recalled it because you’re consciously aware of it.

Of course, the recall process doesn’t always go according to plan. If you’ve ever had a question on the tip of your tongue or simply can’t remember someone’s name, then it’s likely because you’re having difficulty retrieving that information.

How long do memories last?

Memories can last a different amount of time. Some are just a few seconds long while others can last years or even decades. These memories can be categorized into different types that we’ll cover below.

The different types of memory

There are actually multiple different types of memory. These are as follows:

  • Short-term memory– These memories only last a few seconds. They are usually discarded immediately or can be stored as long-term memory if you deem it necessary.

  • Long-term memory– These complex memories can store anything that happened a few minutes ago. They can last a long time if our brain accesses it on a regular basis.

  • Explicit– A type of long-term memory that you can recall if you consciously think about it.

  • Episodic– A type of explicit memory that relates to your personal life, such as an important day or delicious meal.

  • Semantic– A type of explicit memory that relates to general world knowledge. This includes the appearance of various things.

  • Implicit– The second major long-term memory type that doesn’t require a conscious recall.

  • Priming– A type of implicit memory effect where exposure to a stimulus influences the response to another stimulus. This includes associating words with pictures, much like teaching techniques for younger children.

  • Procedural– A type of implicit memory that allows us to perform various actions without needing to think about it. This can include brushing our teeth, cooking our favorite meal, or driving a car.

Goal relevance

Goal constructs play a critical role when it comes to the retention of learning. Setting goals has traditionally been a staple strategy when it comes to motivating individuals to learn and retain new knowledge. This is because emotions can substantially influence memory performance. Positive emotions come from setting achievable goals and reaching them, hence why it’s been such a strong strategy when it comes to learning and retaining new knowledge.

Repetition and retention

Repetition is an important memorization skill that we utilize throughout our childhood. We’re always taught that repeating something over and over will eventually commit those experiences to memory. For the most part, this is true, but how exactly does it work?

The goal of repetition is to form connections that are used to recall our memories. When learning something, your brain will try to associate it with something that you already know. This process is known as assimilation. It’s the brain trying to build a link between something new that you’re trying to learn and something old that you’ve mostly mastered. This is a physical connection in the brain because you can observe the neural pathways that are accommodating new information.

Building these pathways takes a lot of time and you need to consciously create these links. Repeating tasks over and over will help you master them, but it will also help you link them to other newer or older experiences to make them easier to recall.

Learning a language is a great example of practical assimilation. A great way to learn new words is to relate the word in the language you’re learning to something that you already know. For example, the Japanese language uses a lot of loanwords from English, but they are pronounced with a Japanese accent. Accepting these new words by using your existing knowledge of English makes them much easier to learn due to the similarities.

This is why coaching is one of the finest examples of how these concepts can be applied in the real world to inform the development of new knowledge and skills. It taps into many different forms of memory rather than just one or two, helping subjects commit the knowledge to storage, and then uses repeated exposure and repetition to ensure that information stays in their consciousness. In turn it leads to more productive learning, better comprehension and longer-lasting behavioural changes.

Build retention and long-term change into your talent development with Ezra’s world-class employee coaching, built to fit into today’s working life. We’ve redesigned leadership coaching for the modern age to help transform people through affordable, scalable and high-impact solutions, with equitable access through our world-class coaching app. Find out today how digital coaching could make a big difference to your organization.

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