Memory FAQs

Is there such a thing as a photographic memory?

While one cannot completely discount the possibility of a photographic memory, since there have been some very rare individuals with truly extraordinary powers of memory, those examples of outstanding memory that have been studied have all turned out to be due to the use of powerful memory strategies.

The lesson we can draw from most examples of "photographic memory" is that there are truly effective memory strategies, and anyone who wants to put in the requisite time and energy can achieve such a powerful memory. However, the point that most so-called "memory trainers" don't make, is that to achieve such levels of mastery requires a great deal of practice. Moreover, their accomplishments are specific to the memory task they have practiced. That is, achieving a high level of skill at remembering names doesn't mean you'll be any better at remembering things you've read, or things you have to do.

Practicing a particular strategy leads to skill at that strategy, it doesn't lead to a "good memory". There is no such thing as a good memory, and no such thing as a bad one. You may be good at remembering some things, and poor at remembering others.

It should be noted I am only talking here of people with no brain abnormalities. It does seem that particular brain abnormalities can lead to ways of processing information that are dramatically different from the normal (see the case of Kim Peek). However, it may well be that such a memory limits understanding.

References

Ericsson, K.A. (1985). Memory skill. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 39, 188-231.

Higbee, Kenneth L. Your memory. How it works and how to improve it. NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1988.

Thompson, C. P., Cowan, T.M. & Frieman, J. Memory search by a memorist. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Ass., 1993.

Will memorizing lists and speeches improve my memory?

No. Many "memory trainers" tell you memory is like a muscle, and if you exercise it it will become stronger. They tell you that memorizing things will make your memory better. However, you can memorize until you're blue in the face, and this won't give you a better memory. Indeed, if you set aside time each day for memorizing, you will usually find that eventually it takes you longer to memorize information (boredom probably!)1.

The value of memory "exercise" lies in what you're doing. If you're simply learning by rote repetition, this does nothing, because memory is not a muscle. If you're using a memory strategy of some kind, then of course practice will improve your skill at that strategy. Hence, if you spend an hour every day on memorizing using a mnemonic strategy (say the method of loci, or the pegword strategy), you will indeed become better at using that strategy. In fact, it takes a great deal of practice before you can effectively use most of these strategies.

However, this will not "improve your memory", because memory is not a thing. What it does, is make you better at that particular strategy, and only that strategy.

References

Herrmann, D.J. & Searleman, A. 1990. The new multimodal approach to memory improvement. In G. Bower (ed.) Advances in Learning and Motivation, New York: Academic Press.

1. Higbee, Kenneth L. Your memory. How it works and how to improve it. NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1988.

I've read that people only use 10% of their brain. Is this true?

This, or variants of this, are repeated in a great many popular books about the brain and memory. Quite where this idea started I have no idea. It is not at all clear what it means, or what evidence exists for such a statement. The brain contains billions of neurons and I doubt many of them are sitting around just basking in the oxygen, waiting for you to come up with an exciting new strategy that will suddenly trigger them into action, after decades of inertness.

The brain is the most active part of our body, and its activity derives from the connections between those billions of neurons. Memory and thought are contained in patterns of activation, not in single neurons. The essence of how the brain works is that the neurons are all connected. The brain is a network. How can a network work if a significant portion of it isn't working?

The key to improving your mental skills is in making good connections. How can anyone say your connections are only 10% of what they could be? And what on earth would that mean?

The "statistic" is meaningless. What can be said, truthfully, is that we can all improve the organization of our memories.

I seem to have more trouble remembering words and names I know perfectly well. Am I getting Alzheimer's?

As we get older, it is normal to experience more frequent memory blocks for names of objects and people.Not, interestingly enough, for abstract words.

When you were in your twenties, you almost certainly didn’t have as many memory blocks — occasions when something is ‘on the tip of my tongue’. But this is not because you were less forgetful then. It is because memory blocks occur when information has not been retrieved for a long time. Obviously, the older you become, the more information there will be in your memory that has not been recalled for a long time. Hence, more memory blocks.

Related article

Why do I have so much trouble remembering people's names?

The principal reason for the common tendency to forget people's names is very simple - we usually don't pay enough attention when we hear them. But why are names so much harder than other things to remember? Or do they simply appear so, because we feel so bad when we forget a name?

Well, no, personal names are harder to remember than many other types of information, and the reason is simple - connection, or the lack of it. The main tenet of memory is that well-connected information is easy to remember. The more connections a piece of information has, the more likely you are to find it. But what connections does a name have with a person? For the most part, names are arbitrary.

Because the information itself isn't meaningful, you have to make a special effort to create a meaningful connection for it.

Related article

Does playing tapes while you're asleep help you learn?

Not really.

There are circumstances in which learning can occur while you're asleep, but it's a far cry from the science-fiction idea of achieving native fluency in a foreign language after a few nights or a few hours in the sleep lab.

  • The information to be learned cannot require understanding - it is thus useful for memorizing rather than true learning.
  • You must be in the right stage of sleep - a light, drowsy state.
  • The 'sleep learning' must augment ordinary learning, it can't take the place of it. That is, the exact information must also be presented while you are awake and attending to it.

References

Baddeley, Alan.Your memory: A user’s guide. (2nd ed.) London: Penguin Books, 1994.

Higbee, Kenneth L. Your memory. How it works and how to improve it. NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1988.

Do mnemonic strategies really work?

Certainly. Mnemonic strategies work. However, for the most part they are strategies that require a great deal of practice to master, and it is arguable whether the tasks they are suited for are really worth such an effort. For example, to go to the trouble of using the method of loci simply to save yourself the effort of writing a shopping list is fairly pointless. However, if you have a professional need to remember lots of names, mastering the face-name association strategy is probably worth the (not inconsiderable) effort.

Related article

It's said that everything we've ever experienced is recorded somewhere in our brain. Is this true?

No.The origin of this belief seems to lie in the work done by a Canadian surgeon, Wilder Penfield, in the 1950s. Taking advantage of the fact that the brain itself has no sensors for pain, Penfield (with the patients' consent) used the opportunity granted by operations on the brain to investigate the storage of memory. While the brain was exposed, and the patients fully conscious, Penfield stimulated different parts of the cortex electrically. In most cases, the patients had no particular sensation or experience to report, but occasionally they would claim to re-experience very vivid scenes from their past.

This was taken by many at the time to demonstrate that memory works like a camera - that every detail is experienced, and is faithfully recorded in the brain, and nothing is truly lost. However, it now seems clear that the interpretation of these results was simplistic.

Not only did such triggered memories occur in only 40 of 520 patients, but the vividness and specificity of such memories was overstated. It seems rather, from subsequent studies, that such memories are more like dreams - generalized experiences with no particular spatio-temporal context.

Moreover, if the same area was stimulated on a different occasion, a different memory would be elicited, and sometimes the same memories were generated by stimulating different areas. Nor, it must be said, was any attempt made to test the veracity of these 'memories'.

References

Greenfield, Susan. The human brain: A guided tour. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.

Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. NY: Basic Books, 1996.

Why do we forget?

Forgetting, it can be argued, is adaptive. The ability to abstract general rules from specific instances is far more useful than the ability to remember every specific detail, and the one seems to preclude the other1.

As yet there is no evidence that information stored in memory can actually disappear (except of course when the brain is physically damaged). However, when information is put into the long-term memory store, it passes through what is called "working memory". Information can be lost in working memory. If the information doesn't make it through the encoding process (when it is "in" working memory), then it will not enter memory, therefore you cannot "remember" it - although, because of other information encoded at the time, you may have a vague feeling that such information exists.

Forgetting, then, occurs because:

  • it was never properly encoded into memory in the first place, or
  • you can't find it

A failure to find a specific memory generally occurs because of interference from other memories.

1. Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. NY: Basic Books, 1996.

Am I too old to learn?

No.

It is true that memory performance begins to decline after the mid-forties, but the effects of age on memory are complex, as memory itself is complex. It is not true that a particular seventy-year-old necessarily has a 'worse' memory than his thirty-year-old grandson. It is almost certainly true that they each have particular memory tasks at which they are better than the other. It is probably true that the grandson remembers most information with less effort than his grandfather. It is not true that the grandfather can't match his grandson's performance with more effort - or more cunning. If one is skilled at specific memory strategies, and the other isn't, this is probably more important than any age differences.

Think of veteran marathon runners. There’s no way that they’re going to match the speed of a marathon runner in their twenties. But most people couldn’t run a marathon at all (without training). Maybe older adults can’t match the performance of younger adults when both receive the same training. But why should that matter? It doesn’t mean the older adult can’t achieve considerable memory improvement with instruction tailored to their needs, and more extensive practice.

For example, our memory for nonverbal information seems to decline faster than verbal information as we get older. Therefore, memory strategies involving visual imagery are typically less useful for older adults.

Older adults have a big advantage to offset the slowness that comes with increasing age. Experience. A good memory is an organized memory, is a richly connected memory. With a wealth of experience, you have the potential for many connections. With the right strategies, such rich connectivity can help your remembering.

References

Baddeley, Alan.Your memory: A user’s guide. (2nd ed.) London: Penguin Books, 1994.

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