Memory has long been a concept too difficult to describe by even the smartest scholars. We have become more knowledgeable over time. However, we still do not know enough about the complexities of the human mind when it comes to theories about memory.
Theories That Explain Memory Encoding, Storing and Forgetting
“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future” Elie Wiesal
In order for information to become a memory, it needs to have a form. At present, there are three main types: Visual (picture), Acoustic (sound), and Semantic (meaning). So, a song, a beautiful sunset, or a poem has to be manipulated into a code that the brain understands for it to become a memory.
The Multi-Store Memory Model
Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968) devised one of the first memory structures and theories. In order to become a memory, information has to pass through three stores.
The first of which is the sensory memory store.
This lasts up to a quarter of a second. This holds any and all sensory experience around an individual (what they see, hear, taste). Encoding in this specific store is sensory specific. Most of the information which passes through this store decays very quickly unless the individual pays attention to it.
Once an individual pays attention to a specific sensory input, it then enters the short-term memory store.
The duration in this store can be up to 30 seconds and it can only hold 7 (+ or – 2) items (Miller, 1956) depending on the individual. Encoding in this store is mainly auditory. But, this information cannot enter the long-term memory store until it has been rehearsed.
The long-term memory store is mainly unlimited in terms of duration and capacity.
As this store cannot be tested there is no limit to how long a memory can stay in it. The majority of information in the long-term memory store has to be rehearsed from the short-term memory store. The encoding of the memories is semantic, but can also take other forms.
The multi-store memory model has received support due to evidence backing up the idea of a respective short-term and long-term memory store. However, some argue that the model may be oversimplified and favour other theories such as the working memory model.
The Working-Memory Model
Baddley and Hitch (1974) developed an alternative memory theory slightly more advanced and complex than its predecessor. They replaced the idea of a short-term memory store. Instead, they proposed the idea of multiple separate stores within short-term memory. The “working memory”.
The first aspect of the working memory model compared to other memory theories is the central executive. This has several roles. The first of which drives the whole system of working memory.
Furthermore, it also allocates information to the other stores within the working memory system whilst tackling cognitive tasks such as problem-solving
The visuospatial sketchpad essentially deals with visual or spatial information. We use this for navigation. it allows us to move around, depending on where objects are in our environment.
The last store within the working memory system would be the phonological loop. This refers to any auditory information and holds speech-based information for up to two seconds.
The articulatory process (our inner voice) is located within the phonological loop. We repeat and rehearse information using the loop. As a result, we store this information for longer.
The working memory model is supported by dual-task studies. Results prove that individuals can complete two tasks at the same time, where each task requires different working memory systems.
Furthermore, the working memory model does not over-rely on placing importance on the idea of rehearsal for the retention of memories.
How We Forget (Based on Memory Theories)
These two memory theories concentrate on how memories are stored. However, there is little information on how or why we forget.
Ebbinghaus (1885) tested his own memory. He found that retention at the time of learning is 100%. However, this drops very quickly a couple of days after learning. After a few weeks, forgetting slows down but there remains a decline in retention.
He proposed that there are a few ways to increase the likelihood of retaining information for a longer period of time without forgetting. The first was the representation of the memory (e.g. people might find it easier to remember information using mnemonic techniques). Additionally, spaced out repetition also helps speed up retention dramatically.
However, there are various factors which are dependent on how one’s rate of forgetting is affected. This includes, but is not limited to:
- The meaningfulness of information (we are more likely to remember personal information).
- Second of all, the representation of information (simple, shorter chunks of information are easier to remember).
- Thirdly, physiological factors such as stress and sleep.
Flashbulb memories (Brown and Kulik (1977), refer to memories which do not need rehearsal in order to be remembered. This is one of the memory theories which suggests that there is some information which is so emotionally and biologically arousing it causes immediate retention.
One example may be that millions of people are able to give detailed accounts of their day on 9/11. Some may include extremely mundane and repetitive tasks. These would be usually unremarkable. However, they are remembered with vivid clarity due to the significance of the date.
Final Thoughts on Memory Theories
Overall, our memories are extremely complex. Current memory theories are placing us on the right track. But the question on many people’s minds is, will we ever know about the true nature of human memory?
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