Summary and Key Terms

How Memory Functions

Memory is a system or process that stores what we learn for future use.

Our memory has three basic functions: encoding, storing, and retrieving information. Encoding is the act of getting information into our memory system through automatic or effortful processing. Storage is retention of the information, and retrieval is the act of getting information out of storage and into conscious awareness through recall, recognition, and relearning. The idea that information is processed through three memory systems is called the Atkinson-Shiffrin model of memory. First, environmental stimuli enter our sensory memory for a period of less than a second to a few seconds. Those stimuli that we notice and pay attention to then move into short-term memory. According to the Atkinson-Shiffrin model, if we rehearse this information, then it moves into long-term memory for permanent storage. Other models like that of Baddeley and Hitch suggest there is more of a feedback loop between short-term memory and long-term memory. Long-term memory has a practically limitless storage capacity and is divided into implicit and explicit memory.

Parts of the Brain Involved with Memory

Beginning with Karl Lashley, researchers and psychologists have been searching for the engram, which is the physical trace of memory. Lashley did not find the engram, but he did suggest that memories are distributed throughout the entire brain rather than stored in one specific area. Now we know that three brain areas do play significant roles in the processing and storage of different types of memories: cerebellum, hippocampus, and amygdala. The cerebellum’s job is to process procedural memories; the hippocampus is where new memories are encoded; the amygdala helps determine what memories to store, and it plays a part in determining where the memories are stored based on whether we have a strong or weak emotional response to the event. Strong emotional experiences can trigger the release of neurotransmitters, as well as hormones, which strengthen memory, so that memory for an emotional event is usually stronger than memory for a non-emotional event. This is shown by what is known as the flashbulb memory phenomenon: our ability to remember significant life events. However, our memory for life events (autobiographical memory) is not always accurate.

Problems with Memory

All of us at times have felt dismayed, frustrated, and even embarrassed when our memories have failed us. Our memory is flexible and prone to many errors, which is why eyewitness testimony has been found to be largely unreliable. There are several reasons why forgetting occurs. In cases of brain trauma or disease, forgetting may be due to amnesia. Another reason we forget is due to encoding failure. We can’t remember something if we never stored it in our memory in the first place. Schacter presents seven memory errors that also contribute to forgetting. Sometimes, information is actually stored in our memory, but we cannot access it due to interference. Proactive interference happens when old information hinders the recall of newly learned information. Retroactive interference happens when information learned more recently hinders the recall of older information.

Ways to Enhance Memory

There are many ways to combat the inevitable failures of our memory system. Some common strategies that can be used in everyday situations include mnemonic devices, rehearsal, self-referencing, and adequate sleep. These same strategies also can help you to study more effectively.

Key Terms

lapses in memory that are caused by breaks in attention or our focus being somewhere else
acoustic encoding
input of sounds, words, and music
loss of long-term memory that occurs as the result of disease, physical trauma, or psychological trauma
anterograde amnesia
loss of memory for events that occur after the brain trauma
arousal theory
strong emotions trigger the formation of strong memories and weaker emotional experiences form weaker memories
Atkinson-Shiffrin model
memory model that states we process information through three systems: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory
automatic processing
encoding of informational details like time, space, frequency, and the meaning of words
how feelings and view of the world distort memory of past events
memory error in which you cannot access stored information
organizing information into manageable bits or chunks
formulation of new memories
declarative memory
type of long-term memory of facts and events we personally experience
effortful processing
encoding of information that takes effort and attention
elaborative rehearsal
thinking about the meaning of new information and its relation to knowledge already stored in your memory
input of information into the memory system
physical trace of memory
episodic memory
type of declarative memory that contains information about events we have personally experienced, also known as autobiographical memory
equipotentiality hypothesis
some parts of the brain can take over for damaged parts in forming and storing memories
explicit memory
memories we consciously try to remember and recall
false memory syndrome
recall of false autobiographical memories
flashbulb memory
exceptionally clear recollection of an important event
loss of information from long-term memory
implicit memory
memories that are not part of our consciousness
levels of processing
information that is thought of more deeply becomes more meaningful and thus better committed to memory
long-term memory (LTM)
continuous storage of information
set of processes used to encode, store, and retrieve information over different periods of time
memory-enhancing strategy
technique to help make sure information goes from short-term memory to long-term memory
memory error in which you confuse the source of your information
misinformation effect paradigm
after exposure to additional and possibly inaccurate information, a person may misremember the original event
mnemonic device
memory aids that help organize information for encoding
failure of the memory system that involves the involuntary recall of unwanted memories, particularly unpleasant ones
proactive interference
old information hinders the recall of newly learned information
procedural memory
type of long-term memory for making skilled actions, such as how to brush your teeth, how to drive a car, and how to swim
accessing information without cues
identifying previously learned information after encountering it again, usually in response to a cue
process of bringing up old memories that might be distorted by new information
repetition of information to be remembered
learning information that was previously learned
act of getting information out of long-term memory storage and back into conscious awareness
retroactive interference
information learned more recently hinders the recall of older information
retrograde amnesia
loss of memory for events that occurred prior to brain trauma
self-reference effect
tendency for an individual to have better memory for information that relates to oneself in comparison to material that has less personal relevance
semantic encoding
input of words and their meaning
semantic memory
type of declarative memory about words, concepts, and language-based knowledge and facts
sensory memory
storage of brief sensory events, such as sights, sounds, and tastes
short-term memory (STM)
holds about seven bits of information before it is forgotten or stored, as well as information that has been retrieved and is being used
creation of a permanent record of information
effects of misinformation from external sources that leads to the creation of false memories
memory error in which unused memories fade with the passage of time
visual encoding
input of images


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Introduction to Psychology Copyright © 2021 by Southern Alberta Institution of Technology (SAIT) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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