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A model of memory

2. A Model of Memory

Part of a short series on memory design

Denise Hampson
Wednesday 22nd June 2022

Here is a simple model of memory to help us set the scene. There are three stages, or types, of human memory. Sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory.

Sensory memory is the information that’s retained at our senses that lasts just long enough for us to become aware of it…. or not. It’s all the environmental information available to us at any moment – all the sights, the sounds, the smells, the touch sensations. Most of this we are barely aware of as it’s all processed subconsciously. Have you ever asked someone to repeat themselves only to realise you did actually hear what they had said the first time? That sound memory, or echoic memory, is a great example of sensory memory. It lasts just a few seconds after which it decays and is lost.

Paying attention to something brings it into our working memory also known as short-term memory, or consciousness. From here if something is interesting, or different, or repeated enough it gets stored in our long-term memory.

When we trigger a long-term memory, it brings it back into focus in our conscious minds.

All three stages of encoding, storage and retrieval are required to make our memory work and all three stages offer opportunities for making stronger memories, both in terms of attention and in terms of what we think of as ‘remembering’ (storage and retrieval).

Three stages of memory

There are very few times in our lives when we actually try to commit something to memory. Maybe if we are studying for a test, or trying to remember complicated directions a stranger just gave us in the street, or we’re trying to remember a phone number we just heard and we don’t have a pen to write it down.

Other than moments like these, most of our memories seem to just happen to us. It’s a process we do without really thinking about it. And here’s the thing… not all memories are made equally… and some aren’t made at all. In fact, almost all of the things that could become our memories, aren’t made at all.

Daniel Kahneman, one of the world’s most well-known behavioural psychologists, conducted a lot of research into memory and our recall of events and experiences.

He concluded that it’s as if there are two of us going through life. There’s a version of us that is experiencing our life in real time, our “experiencing self”. And then there’s a version of us, our “remembering self”, that is taking the most important bits and storing them away for later, like a set of polaroid images.

The experiencing self and the remembering self

We don’t store all of the information. If I asked you to remember your last vacation or your last birthday, you wouldn’t start at the beginning and recall it in real time, you’d jump to particular highlights and significant moments.

So what makes the cut? What makes it into our memory?

Research shows us there are a set of factors that make memories stronger or more likely to be made in the first place.

Let's dive into the first of these factors.

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