The 3 memories – How does the brain work when it receives information?

Gain efficiency by understanding how memories work

Throughout our lives, we learn: learn to walk, learn to drive, learn to calculate, learn a language. If some people like to do it, others see it as a difficulty, a fear. Today, we would like to help you discover a fabulous tool that everyone has: our memory, or rather, our memories. Because yes, we have several! When we get to know them and understand how they work, they can change from foes to friends.

Theories and explanations are numerous and very complex; the purpose of this article is to simplify these functions as much as possible in order to make them understandable so that we make take advantage of them in everyday life.

How does our memory work when we receive information?

In order to memorize information, we go through three phases*: perception or reception of the information, storage, and retrieval. (*CF. diagram at the end of the article)

Here is how the different memories are called upon when information reaches us and what it tells us:

1) Sensory memory

When we perceive information, we receive it through our senses: smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch. This information is stored, for a very short time, in what is called the sensory memory. The duration can depend on our predominant sense. When we talk about learning, for example, the following types of learners are often mentioned: visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. Taking into account our predominant sense is therefore an effective tool to retaining information a little longer.

When that time is up, either the information is passed on to short-term memory (or working memory) or it is lost.

(Take note that all the senses are necessary to perceive information; to think that we are more “visual” is a neuromyth. Although we may feel more comfortable with one particular method, the others are equally important.)

What this tells us: Our senses pick up information. When learning, try to vary the senses that perceive the information. What if you drew a word, or associated a smell with a mathematical formula?

2) Short-term memory or working memory

If the information is not lost, then it continues its way to the short-term memory. We can imagine this memory as a data processing plant. It is characterized by two essential elements:

  1. We can hold information for about ten seconds at a time: it is this memory that is mobilized when we have to remember a telephone number, a password or the beginning of a sentence that we read.
  2. The information we can hold is about equal to +- 7 units. This means that we can store +- 7 units of information at a time. A unit can represent a mathematical formula, a conjugation ending or a number.

What this tells us: Perhaps you have already experienced this feeling: you are taking a course and you feel completely lost. The reason is that the units of information perceived are too large, which means we have to free up space in the working memory. How can this be done? By writing down certain elements on a sheet of paper, for example, or by grouping elements together to create fewer units: instead of remembering a telephone number digit by digit, group them together in numbers. For example, 0-2-6-4-5-6-1-4-4-7 might take up 10 units, while 026-456-1417 might take up only three.

At this point, you are probably asking yourself the question: how do we move from short-term memory to long-term memory? To do this, our memory must encode the information so that it can be stored in long-term memory.

3) Long-term memory

Encoding is essential in order to store information in long-term memory. To encode information, it must be reviewed several times. This can be done consciously or unconsciously. For example, if we are confronted with a mathematical formula several times (theoretical explanations by the teacher, revisions at home, use in problems), then we will encode this information and store it in long-term memory. Beyond the frequency of exposure to this information, we need to show our memory how to encode this information: for example, when we organize our learning in a certain way, then the information will be encoded. In addition, it is important to make connections between the information we want to retain and the information we have already encoded, that is, the information we already know. For example, we know the word “door” and we learn the word “window”: if we are aware of the link between the two elements, the information can be coded and stored in long-term memory.

What this teaches us: In order to begin the encoding process, it is essential to review information several times and ideally in different ways, so that we can make connections with what we already know and organize our learning in a clear way. Encoding information allows it to be stored in long-term memory.

See you soon,