Saturday, March 9, 2013

What are the components of a good memory?

Many of us would love to have a better memory. I surmise that a strong, focused attention span allows for the development of better memory.  Yet, what causes a person to have a strong attention span in the first place? What makes a person pay stronger, longer attention to some phenomena and not to others?

I want to suggest that phenomena that relates to your person and identity, things that you find peculiar or interesting, things that aggravate you and things that you despise, will entertain your attention span longer than other kinds of phenomena. Perhaps it isn’t just the length of the attention span but how deeply (thoroughly?) we embed the information in our brains and how much wiring our brain devotes to a specific piece or collection of data.

The length of one’s attention span seems also to be important because if you can have a longer attention span for a particular area of knowledge, you will be able to encode and store more of the information about the topic; this results in enhanced memory retrieval.

Furthermore, it seems that anything that evokes a fiery emotional response will also form a more trenchant, recallable memory. One of the problems for developing a better memory in other domains of knowledge (that are entirely new) may be that instead of generating an emotional response, they elicit an indifferent response.  If you find an area of knowledge, say, politics, to “boil your blood” you probably have a better grasp on this subject than someone who has more of a flat, indifferent response to the subject.

 Perhaps the material you are learning bores you or doesn’t pique your interest or excite your thought processes enough to establish focus.  This past quarter I’ve experienced just that. As I reflect on the current subject matter, I see that it doesn’t interest me and it doesn’t relate to any experiences I’ve ever had so my focus and memory (and thus learning) capacity is negatively impacted.  Passing the class matters—and so far, I’m doing that, but for me, longer-term retention is always the ultimate goal

If only there could be a method (or pill) to make us more interested (or more emotionally affected or rewarded?) by a subject so that focus and memory were better played out.


  1. I myself have a hard time trying to remember names and faces. At the grocery store I work at, people recognize me all the time but are suprise that I don't remember them. What surprises me is that they would mention how we met months ago and are shocked I don't remember. For me, I learn mainly form repetition. If I meet some people regulary they have a better chance of sticking into my mind.

    Unfortunatly, stuff I learned in classes have not retained to well due to the fact that I have not kept in practice with them. I can remember studying them but have a hard retaining them. I agree with thing that "boil my blood" though.

    1. Yes, I think most of us are in that category of "not retaining much" from previous classes we've taken. I've spoken to many people who love to tout their degrees but when it comes to whether or not they retained information from the classes they've taken (to achieve those degrees) they seem to have forgotten much of it. If I get a degree, I want to retain as much as I can.

    2. Ah, well - that goes with the territory. John Medina says, "Studies show that emotional arousal focuses attention on the 'gist' of an experience *at the expense* of peripheral detail" [1]

      Unfortunately, most of the things we've learned about attention and learning don't help the student much - they're techniques that ought to be adopted by lecturers in designing their presentations. Unfortunately, most lecturers are working flat out just to master their subject, let alone divert additional effort to teaching techniques and delivery.

      Still, I'd recommend Medina's book - it's written in a fairly light style and has some useful hints. Perhaps the most important thing to do is to just *use* your brain - it thrives on exercise - but unfortunately most media has degraded into the intellectual equivalent of fast food - and (ironically) is far more concerned with producing emotional responses than delivering information. But that's a topic for another day. ;)

      [1] Medina, John, "Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School", Pear Press, 2009.

  2. When you're more interested in a subject you're not only concentrating on it harder but you are also making more associations with other related memories, and with other new sensory data coming in at the same time, and that strengthens the retention of the new memory. It also allows for easier retrieval since there are more associations available to use as keys to access the memory.

    1. Thank you for this info! Great response.

  3. I'm sure we all would. To have Sheldon Cooper's memory (but with better social skills and respect for others).