Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What Is Memory?

Memory is the faculty by which the brain encodes, stores, and retrieves information. It is a record of experience for guiding future action.

Humans process stimuli first with their sensory memory; that information is typically held in the brain for less than a second, which may explain why most people report that when shown an object quickly, they feel like they take in more details than they're able to recall later. Next, the information is transferred to short-term memory or working memory, which allows someone to mull things over and hold key information in their mind. Finally, people store past events and patterns in their long-term memory, also known as episodic or semantic memory.

Understanding Memory

Altare Shutterstock

There are many different types of memory. There's the type of memory that you can dredge up without any effort at all; and there's the category where you must sweat to imprint facts and knowledge. Here is an overview, from various kinds of long-term memory, where you can recall events forever, as well as short-term, procedural, sensory, among others.

What is long-term memory?

This is how you store life-time memories, your first kiss, your wedding day, and the birth of your baby. The more weight you put on the event, the more likely it will be coded into your memory stores. The two types of memory stored in long-term are implicit and explicit.

What is implicit memory?

This type of memory is trouble-free and unintentional. How do you, after hearing a melody once, recall that melody without any effort on your part? Implicit memory is unconscious and involuntary in nature.

article continues after advertisement

How Memory Works 

Teksomolika iStock

Memory is malleable, and many researchers believe that it can be improved. But it also tends to decline naturally as people age and it can be corrupted by dementia as well as brain injury, trauma, or repeated stress. Even without impairment, human memory is notoriously untrustworthy. Different areas of the brain affect memory including the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex.

What is the role of the hippocampus in memory?

The hippocampus, located in the temporal lobe and part of the limbic system, is related to normal recognition and gives memories meaning and connects them to other memories. The hippocampus is also involved with spatial memory, which helps the brain map the surrounding world and find its way around a known place, for example.

What is the role of the prefrontal cortex?

Located in the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex is important in decision-making, speech, language, executive function, among other behaviors. This is also where short-term and working memory resides.

How to Improve Memory

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Memory naturally declines with age, but some people are able to stay mentally sharp. How do they do it? Genetics plays a role, but lifestyle choices—like regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, not smoking, and watching blood pressure and cholesterol levels—can have a huge impact. It’s also crucial to keep the brain active and challenged with new activities, such as learning a language, puzzles, hobbies, volunteering, and other activities.

How can I sharpen my memory?

You can boost memory with proven techniques like repeating what you hear out loud, writing information down, creating associations, and dividing new information into learnable chunks. Plus, simple and healthy life choices also help slow memory loss and improve cognition in your later years.

What foods improve memory?

There are foods that can improve cognitive function. Fatty fish, for example, contains docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, which reduces inflammation and improves the brain. Other foods that protect against memory loss are blueberries, turmeric, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, nuts, and seeds.

Essential Reads

Recent Posts