4 minute read


Memory. That golden thing we could curse or kiss; a superpower to store secrets and codes (like a PIN that we never write down); and, at times, the reason we can’t find our keys.

From encoding to retrieval, memory is a marvel until it breaks down. When we forget, it’s like clutching at water with our bare hands. A word on the tip of the tongue, a face that’s suddenly lost its name; it’s a wonder we ever get it right.

While we don’t know everything about ‘how we get it right’, we do know a great deal about memory systems. How they function, when they work best, and just as importantly: where they can go wrong.

Let’s get into it, then.

 How Memory Works

There are three simple steps to memory formation (and we will keep them simple for sanity’s sake). They are:

1)      Encoding;

2)      Storage; and

3)      Retrieval


Remember the surprise on your mother’s face when you came home sporting a fashionable nose piercing? Okay, maybe that was just me.

That shock-horror reaction was impressed upon my brain as visual stimuli were encoded into electrochemical signals that could later be stored by the brain. The world out there doesn’t exist in the brain’s natural language, so it needs to do some translating first. That’s what encoding is for: it turns physical stimuli like sound and light into the brain’s electrochemical language.

Think about typing up an assignment. You need to tap on the keyboard to send signals to the computer about which letter to put on the screen.

How well we encode information depends of a few different factors. Firstly, the more meaningful the information the better. So, you might forget the exact date and time your mum needs to go for a root canal, but you’ll be counting the minutes if it’s your turn in the dentist’s chair.

The brain can take in information through seeing (visual encoding), hearing (acoustic encoding) and attaching meaning (semantic encoding). Researchers (Craik and Tulving, 1975) discovered that attaching meaning to information is the best chance of taking in information, whereas taking in information through images or sound isn’t as easy.


Once we have perceived an event, we need to capture and store it. Just like your assignment on the computer, unless you hit ‘save’ then your hard work could be lost forever.

There are a few theories about how memory works. We look at little closer if you click here. All you need to know for now is that our brains cannot process and store everything that’s happening around us (don’t worry though, this is a good thing).


This is either the easy or problematic part of memory, depending on the day you’re having. Retrieval is the process by which our brain accesses information it has already stored in your long term memory. For this phase to run smoothly, it’s important that the first sections were completed well. Many of the memory troubles we attribute to retrieval actually stem from failures at an earlier stage.

For example: you’ve lost your keys (a regular experience for many otherwise sane and healthy minds). You’re running about your house, cursing yourself for not being able to remember where you left them. When we say that we have forgotten something, we are typically talking about the subjective experience of a retrieval failure. But this doesn’t mean that the problem began at retrieval.

Extending on the missing keys example, let’s work backwards to understand what would be necessary for a successful retrieval:

1)      You needed to be paying attention while setting your keys down, encoding the visual information which described where you were (and maybe the sound of the keys hitting a particular surface).

2)      This sensory information needed to be held in your working memory (see types of memory here for more details).

3)      Then, that information needed to be deemed important or meaningful enough to transition into long-term memory.

 If the memory process broke down at any of these points, you may well draw a blank. With past knowledge, and by process of elimination, you may eventually stumble upon your keys (on the kitchen counter where you’d left them, hiding beneath your mail), but it’s hardly the most efficient way of finding them.

The ‘lost keys’ example is good introduction to understanding how our memories are formed and identifying some points of failure. When you recognise that your keys were already doomed from the encoding stage, you can make changes to account for that fact. For example, allocating a place where you always keep your keys to encourage repetition and an easier pathway to long-term memory.

Many solutions come to light when we understand a little more about long-term memory, and the specific ways in which memories are stored there. There are two main branches of long-term memory that can help us with this: explicit and implicit.

 The Take-away

Understanding the stages of memory gives us a chance at identifying points of failure in everyday life. Just like a computer, if you don’t capture the information correctly and save it then it’s impossible to go and find it later. Then again, perhaps the most important thing to note is that the damage is often done before the retrieval phase. Therefore, if you want to improve your memory, don’t scrunch up your eyes and rub your temples; rather, try building stronger pathways from encoding to retrieval.

  • Cowan, N, 2001. The magical number 4 in short-term memory: a reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behav Brain Sci., [Online]. 24, 87 – 114. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11515286
  • Hassanbeigi, A, 2011. The relationship between study skills and academic performance of university students. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 30, 1416 – 1424. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.10.276