Here we go again – discussing something that doesn’t traditionally come under mental health. But I think it’s important. For the same reason that we said learning is important. Learning and memory are human computation skills, and I think that being good at computation inside your head during a problem, situation or task goes a long way towards ensuring good mental health. Now, let’s get started on the topic in this post: how to remember things well?      


Sensory Memory    

Each of our senses (vision, hearing, taste etc) comes with its own memory. These memories are extremely short-lived. For example, the duration of the sensory memory is merely half a second for vision and about three seconds for hearing. Yep. Sad. 

Short-term Memory  

Studies have shown that the short-term memory can hold about 7 pieces of information (7 digits, 7 images, 7 tasks etc) at a time, give or take 2; and the amount of time that it can retain information is between 3-20 seconds, depending on the complexity of the information and the training level of one’s memory. The short-term memory contains three information areas – the iconic memory for images, the acoustic memory for sounds and the working memory for task-driven information such as phone numbers as long as you are dialing or OTPs as long as you are typing. 

Long-term Memory

The long-term memory is like a sum total of all mental experiences. Nobody knows how long it can retain information. In many cases, the information lasts throughout one’s lifetime. 


Let’s consider an example: Suppose you are trying to remember the following information after reading it in a book: 


Domains of Cognitive Psychology

(1) Consciousness
(2) Attention
(3) Perception
(4) Language
(5) Memory
(6) Knowledge representation
(7) Imagery
(8) Patterns
(9) Concepts
(10) Cognitive Neuroscience
(11) Artificial Intelligence


That’s 11 items in total. Now, while reading, the sense that is active is vision. So the sensory memory in question is the visual sensory memory, and we know that it can only keep things for about half a second. So, our task is now to transfer the information into the STM as quickly as possibe, where it can be retained for up to 20 seconds! I realize that 20 seconds doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but compared to half a second it’s huge. So:

Step 1 – Transfer information from sensory memory to short-term memory

Basically, you need to hold your attention long enough that the information automatically transfers into the short-term memory. Studies have shown that interest and familiarity are the two main determinants of attention. So, you may or may not be interested in Domains of Cognitive Psychology. Regardless, you can start to familiarize yourself with the terms. 

We learned before that the ideal storage capacity is about 7 items. So, you would start with just 7 out of the 11 items, and then do the remaining 6 once the 7 have been committed to your long-term memory.

Let’s try and do a familiarization exercise with the first 7 items in the list. We’ll start with consciousness. Consciousness simply means a state in which you are entirely aware of what you are thinking and what is happening around you. Anything below that threshold drops into the subconscience. Next, we have attention. We all know what that means. Then, there’s perception. Perception is basically detecting a change in your existing information state. For example, you may percieve that something is different – that’s a change from the existing information state to the altered information state. Then, we have language and memory, both of which are self-explanatory. Finally, items (6) and (7) are knowledge representation (which refers to the way knowledge is represented. For example digits are represented using lines) and Imagery (which is how we form images in our head about the given information. For example, when we read about romance, we form erotic images in our heads). There! Now, we have 7 familiar items. Now, since we have familiarization down, it’s time to hold our attention on these items long enough for them to transfer to the short-term memory. For me, the period of familiarized attention was about 20 seconds. Your mileage may vary. 

Step 2 – Transfer information from short-term memory into long-term memory

Now that we have 7 items in short-term memory, it’s time to transfer these items to the long-term memory so that they can be remembered for longer than 3-20 seconds. Also, another disadvantage of the short-term memory is that it’s prone to interference (distractions) and decay (losing clarity of the information after a distraction). 

Transferring to the long-term memory is done by connecting the new information to a mental structure that is already in place.

For example, one structure that you can use is the order in which the 7 items usually occur for a person.

(1) Consciousness occurs first (you know you have to be awake)
(2) Then attention (you pay attention)
(3) Then perception (you detect a change in information)
(4) Then language (you hear words)
(5) Then memory (you feel an opening in which the new information can be stored inside your head)
(6) Then knowledge representation (you choose a representation for the new information – words, digits etc), and lastly
(7) Imagery (you choose certain images to associate with the new information).

Thus, by using an already-in-place structure (the structure that tells you things occur in a certain order for a person), you made it easier for the 7 items to transfer from your short-term memory into your long-term memory.

Step 3 – Keep the information in the long-term memory 

To keep the information in your long-term memory, you need to do regular rehearsals and reinforcement into the chosen structure. We all know what rehearsals and reinforcements mean, but pay attention to the chosen structure part. You can’t reinforce the information into a different structure, like say, a mnemonic with all the starting letters –  CAPLMKI. This is not the structure you chose before. The structure you chose before was the order in which the items usually occur for a person, and you have to stick to the same structure during your rehearsals and reinforcement. For me, it takes about 20 rehearsals on average to keep it in the long-term memory for about five weeks. Again, your mileage may vary. 

Step 4 – Repeat steps 1, 2 and 3 with the remaining items, taking no more than 7 at a time.


That’s about it, folks! Hope this helps you remember things better. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!