How Memory Works
Some experts theorize that memory occurs in three stages: first in the sensory stage, then in short-term memory, and finally, in long term memory. These stages function as a filter to protect us from the flood of sensory information to which we are constantly exposed. The mechanism to filter sensory information is missing or reduced in some people, a condition known as Sensory Processing Disorder, so that they receive too much information or not enough. This condition is commonly called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD/ADHD) and affects the degree to which you are extroverted or introverted.
Short-term memory is fairly limited; most people can remember about seven to eight things for no more than 20 or 30 seconds. There are techniques to increase your capacity such as dividing a 10-digit number in to chunks (2177930823 into 217-793-0823) or constantly repeating it so that you continually reset your short-term memory clock.
Transferring information to long-term memory occurs through repetition and usage, the reinforcement strengthening the synapses connected with the sensations. This ability is an important characteristic of memory. There are various aspects of long-term memory: storage which depends upon how well something was learned originally and retrieval which usually depends upon current uses. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prize winner and author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, theorizes that our brains operate on two different levels or systems which he calls “Experiencing Self” or System 1 and “Remembering Self” (System 2).
The first system is primarily on a subconscious level; it is fast, automatic, emotional, frequently in play, and relies mostly on stereotypes. The second system is deliberate, logical, slow, infrequent, and lazy – coming into play only with effort. System 1 jumps to conclusions while the System 2 forms judgments. As Kahneman says, “we tell stories to ourselves.” We do not make decisions or feel emotions based upon real experiences, but our memories of those experiences. System 2 likes novelty, significance, and endings. As an example, a lovely meal, good companionship, and a pleasant evening overall is more likely to be remembered for its 5 minute bad ending such as receiving a bill higher than expected or the waiter spilling a cup of coffee on your lap than the 3 hours of relative pleasure preceding the end of the event.
Understanding the mechanics of memory is important because you can consciously influence what you remember and, as a consequence, how you are likely to act and feel in the future. Repeating a positive thought constantly can ultimately change your outlook to be more positive, the basis for the idiom “Fake it ’til you make it.” In addition, if the new information is related to something we already know, it is even easier to transfer into long-term memory using the same and related neural pathways. For example, the prom you attended in high school that wasn’t much fun can, over time, become the highlight of your teenage years as the bad elements fade away and new positive endings are added. Researchers believe that long-term memory can store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely. Furthermore, your long-term memories are constantly being edited with each new version replacing the version you had before.