Psychology 101 – Memory


For information to be retrievable from memory, it first must be encoded, or converted into a readable format for the brain to be able to access. The manner of encoding, or the effort a person makes to learn new information, has a substantial influence on how accessible the information is for later retrieval.

Levels of Processing – Level of processing is the degree to which information is elaborated, reflected on and processed in a meaningful way. The two levels of processing are shallow and deep.

  1. Shallow processing is processing at a structural level, this is when only physical characteristics are noticed by the observer.
  2. Deep processing has two levels, the first is at a language level – the observer processes words and sounds, while the deepest level is called the semantic level, this is when the observer processes the meaning of an object.

Generally information is more sound if it is processed at a deeper level, especially when the new information is consciously linked to or compared with previous knowledge – this is why it is almost always helpful to use examples or analogies to process and link up new information with old. However, sometimes shallow processing can be more beneficial than deep processing, depending on what sort of information needs to be retrived. For example, shallow processing might help you out with answering multiple choice questions on an exam, while deep processing would be more effective for an essay question. This is known as the encoding specificity principle. Context and Retrieval –

  • The context you are in when you are encoding new information has an effect on how you retrieve it, if you are angry when you learn something for example, then you are far more likely to retrieve that information at a later date, when you are angry again. This is the reason for the ‘lost keys’ phenomenon, if you have been out drinking and you lose your keys, and are unable to find it the next morning, chances are you will find them again next time you are drunk. This is because memory encodes differently in different states of consciousness, and therefore the context you are in largely determines how and where the memory will be placed. Retrieval cues are stimuli, states of mind, or thoughts that can be used to facilitate retrieval of information.
  • The spacing effect – the superiority of memory for information rehearsed over longer intervals – demonstrates that spacing study sessions over longer intervals tends to double long term retention of information.
  • The ability to retrieve information from LTM also depends on the modes used to encode it. In general, the more ways a memory can be encoded, the greater likelihood that it will be accessible for later retrieval. So maybe next time you see your passport you should smell it or put it up to your ear and listen to it!

Networks of Association – As mentioned earlier, the most powerful method for retaining memory is to create many associations between new information and old. Associations are crucial to remembering because the pieces of information stored in memory form networks of association; clusters of interconnected information. For example, most people would associate the word dog with fetch or bark. A slightly less strong association between dog would be cat, as they are both household pets. The word dog might also be linked to more personal memories, such as fond memories of your dog, or a time when you were bitten by a dog in childhood. Each piece of information along a network is called a node. Nodes may be thoughts, images, concepts, books, propositions, smells, tastes, films, memories, songs, emotions or any other piece of information. One node might link to and branch off into hundreds of other nodes, which create a strong semantic web of memory. This is how conversations move forwards, as you are listening to someone speak, certain words trigger nodes in your semantic memory, therefore bringing new information into your working memory, which progresses the conversation from one topic to the next. This triggering of nearby nodes is known as the spreading activation theory, and is quite humorously demonstrated in the following South Park clip. You can also check out the music map website, input a musician or a band and it will generate a semantic map of artists who are similar; the closer their nodes are to the initial node, the more related their music is. Schemas –  Schemas are patterns of thought, or organised knowledge structures, that render the environment relatively predictable. Basically they are a visual archetype or symbol of something in your mind’s eye. They are also generally shared by a collective society, for example, if I were to tell you I was a clown for a living in conversation, you would immediately bring to mind an image of a typical circus clown with white face makeup and a red nose – this is a schema. Situations can also be schemas, for example when students walk into a classroom on the first day of school and a person resembling a teacher begins to lecture, they listen and take notes in a routine fashion. Students are not suprised that a stranger has walked in, taken control of the class and started talking, because they already have a schema for what occurs in a classroom. The following clip from Catch Me if You Can demonstrates this quite well, when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character pretends to be the substitute teacher on the first day of school. Next Page

6 thoughts on “Psychology 101 – Memory

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