The subject of memory in human beings has been open to a wide variety of interpretations. Many times, a common mistake is to confuse memory with other things: with intelligence or with knowledge.

We are interested in investigating the subject of memory from the perspective of psychology. It must be considered that memory has a subjective aspect : everyone remembers things differently. Also, keep in mind that beings apply filters: they do not remember everything, only what makes a lasting impression on their mind.

Definition and functions

Along with perception and learning, memory is one of the most important cognitive processes and they are the raison d’être of Cognitive Psychology .

The Cognitive Psychology deals with understanding the nature and workings of the human mind . From their perspective, memory has the following characteristics:

  • It is a mental process. It involves a series of steps until something becomes a memory. From the impression of the fact, the way to register it and then how to evoke it. All of these steps configure the memory process.
  • It is a mental capacity , which serves to accumulate coded information, which can be recovered voluntarily or not. Why is it considered a capability? It happens that not all individuals have the same degree of memory. Certain people have poor mental retention. On the other hand, others have this highly developed capacity.

Without a doubt, memory is a fundamental capacity for any individual, since without it life would be a nonsense . The habitual behavior of people is based on memories. In fact, memory is a priority factor in mental health.

The multidimensional mood of memory

Memory is multidimensional. It is a complex system with several levels of functioning, almost imperceptible, for a healthy person, which allows them to undertake actions, communicate and be aware of themselves.

Without memory there would be no subjectivity (sense of self), the human being is the sum of his memories. Nor would there be a sense of belonging to a time (collective memory), affective, social or family consciousness.

Likewise, without memory each act of a person would always start from scratch. We move forward because we remember the above . To a large extent, learning by trial and error obeys memory. This is what allows you to learn thanks to remembering mistakes.

When memory fails , even in a circumstantial and momentary way, it reveals its capital relevance even for the most insignificant activities. Memory is not perfect, it can fail, suffer distortions and be mixed with illusions.

However, it must be considered that memory also erases harmful events. Try to forget what is damaging to mental health. Many times, a total forgetfulness does not happen; but care is taken not to keep a memory alive. That is exactly what the process known as grief is about.

Forgetfulness is a mental mechanism that also allows adaptation and overcoming of traumatic episodes , it is not the absence of memory, but the best memory companion, a system that provides mental hygiene and keeps the brain agile and busy.

The functioning of memory

Although the functioning of memory is subject to constant variations , due to various factors, the truth is that it works well enough in normal situations and in healthy individuals.

The function of memory is to encode, record and retrieve large volumes of data that are essential for the adaptation of the person to the context or environment.

However, we must say that memory is not analogous to a store or library , it is a faculty that preserves and elaborates, it is a creative memory. This is one of the qualities that, many times, people do not understand. They believe that memory is the simple quality of storing data. That’s not true!

For correct memorization, links are established between the material stored in memory. Likewise, inferences and deductions are achieved that manage to locate, relate and encode memories and information.

The above is what they call the ” adaptive power of memory .” If memory were one-dimensional, if it only stores information as in a memory repository, then you would not be able to adapt to new situations.

It happens that we do not always receive the same types of information . We receive data from the world through the senses, through the mind, through language . Similarly, human beings are not inert memory reservoirs.

Humans also create data, knowledge . From what they grasp from the external world, they make their own conclusions. What they deduce becomes new information that they also store in memory . This is something different from computers, which do not do this creative process so typical of humans.

This adaptive power of memory in turn facilitates the adaptation of human beings to the needs of everyday life.

Spatial conditions of human memorization

Obviously, human memory is the product of long periods of evolution and adaptation to the environment. If, as a species, homo sapiens has overcome all obstacles, it has been because of its ability to experiment, memorize, remember, and act accordingly . Memory has made it easier for the human species to survive.

In short, memory is the ability to obtain, accumulate and retrieve information. The individual is such because of what he learns and remembers. Without memory there would be no ability to perceive, learn or think, ideas could not be expressed and there would not be a personal identity either, because without memories personal identity and life itself would be annulled .

The essential function of memory is to provide individuals with the essential knowledge to understand the environment in which they live .

Memory preserves and reconstructs memories according to the present and renews ideas, purposes, and skills in a changing reality. Here we must insist on something: human memory reconstructs memories, never leaves them intact. This seems like a disadvantage, but it is actually one of his great gifts.

Memory from a neuropsychological and cognitive psychology perspective

Neuropsychological studies have shown that memory is not a unitary entity, but is made up of several interconnected systems with different objectives.

There is no specific region in the brain where memories are stored. The memory is formally structured, it is the sum of various systems in charge of obtaining, retaining and recovering the information that is perceived from the outside.

Each memory has its own physical circuit , so when different brain injuries occur, different memories also disappear. This shows, once again, the complexity of human memory. Not all memories are identical: that is why they are worked on in different areas of the brain.

The memory systems thus described have their own functions and ways of functioning , they work synergistically and in parallel; For this reason, the idea concurs that learning and remembering depend on the functioning of only one mental system.

Memory-related areas of the brain

It is currently known that not only the cerebral cortex is involved in memory, but also other regions of the brain, such as the limbic system.

Furthermore, the brain is comprised of two large hemispheres, the right and the left ; the first processes visual information and the second the verbal. Added to this is that the ability to remember images is superior to that of remembering words.

Neuropsychology makes it clear that memory has several levels where information is processed. Likewise, it is convenient that long-term memory (MLP) operates in different regions of the brain, and implicit and explicit memories depend on different neural circuits.

In such a case, we must say that memory is a system. That is why it has been so effective in time for human beings . Its complexity results in interesting capabilities.

The existence of implicit and explicit memory

The implicit memory has been very interesting in many fields of study. It happens that it is not a conscious memory. When we want to remember something, we are clear about what we are looking for in the labyrinths of memory.

But there is another memory, which allows us to do repetitive acts without expending energy on the conscious process. This is the implicit memory , which is made up of:

  • Habits, awareness and traditional conditioning.
  • Perceptual and motor skills, such as riding a bicycle.

Interestingly, implicit memory is the one we use the most. On a daily basis, such as when traveling by bicycle or driving a car. When we do this, we are not waiting to do it step by step: take the handlebars and pedal board, or keep an eye on the speeds and the steering wheel.

For its part, what has been studied the most is explicit memory; which is made up of conscious memories about individuals, places, things and events. In later lines these definitions will be expanded.

Another parameter: the ideas of cognitive psychology

At the beginning of Cognitive Psychology, which occurred towards the end of the 1950s, the first structural model of information processing in the human cognitive system was formulated. Later, in 1968, the psychologists Atkinson and Schiffrin developed the structural model or modal model, which recognizes various layers or structures of memory.

In this sense, memory is not a uniform construct , but the sum of several memory structures that are defined below.

a) Sensory memory (MS): 

This first faculty is made up of sensory registers . It is a space with a large storage capacity and a very limited duration, of less than a second.

Sensory data is stored here for a short time , making it a kind of memory adjacent to perception. From here, they move on to short-term memory (MCP).

Studies on sensory registers have recognized visual (iconic), auditory (echoic), gustatory, olfactory, and haptic memories (linked to the processing of tactile sensations).

Iconic or visual memory immediately collects a lot of information. In the event that the sensory data do not pass to the MCP, they rapidly decline. It is important to indicate that this memory seems to be in charge of relating people to their environment.

b) Short-term memory (MCP) 

Together with long-term memory (MLP), it configures a pair of memory spaces, it is made up of ephemeral things and others that are durable. Traditional memory has been understood as long-term memory. It is in recent times that other types of memories have been emphasized.

The short – term memory (MCP) is responsible for storing the information that the subject required in the present tense.

Its function is to organize and analyze the data ; for example, remembering names, phone numbers, answering test questions, recognizing people’s faces, etc. Also, interpret the experiences.

The data is encoded in particular visually or acoustically or, to a lesser extent, by semantic signs . It is an operative memory that makes up all the knowledge and memories that are of interest in the present situation and in the face of future situations.

Its information gathering capacity is limited . Memories of this memory can be modified by new experiences. If we compare it with the technology of a computer, we will say that this type of memory is similar to “RAM memory”.

The temporal duration of the data in the MCP is short . Only when the data is systematically interpreted and collected can it last longer than about 20 seconds, which is the regular time limit of the MCP.

Due to the aforementioned, people usually write down the data they capture with this memory. It is even possible to put certain information into long-term memory … but this implies an additional effort.

b) Long-term memory (MLP) 

It happens that long-term memory (LTM) is intended to preserve knowledge of the environment to put it into practice later.

It is the basis of permanent knowledge . This memory includes the knowledge of the physical environment, the data of the socio-cultural reality, the autobiographical memories, the mastery of language and the meanings of the notions learned.

The MLP integrates the data in a well structured way , providing its access when it is pertinent.

This is a very important piece of information: long-term memory data must be well structured. That is one of the reasons why this data can be stored for long periods of time.

The data stored in verbal form are semantic and visual in nature , when talking about figures or graphics. Through the semantic code , significant links are established between the different concepts learned throughout life.

In practice, the MLP has unlimited capacity , although there is no guarantee of its recovery when required. It is important, in any case, your organization to recover it .

However, it happens that the MLP has a somewhat individual existence, as it remembers and forgets data involuntarily . That is, you have to work on it repeatedly. The data can be blurred if it is not consulted with some regularity.

The long term memory is a stable structure . Knowledge is preserved for minutes, days, months, years, or throughout a person’s life.

As is evident, the systems described above are not fixed , they are continuous phases of data processing, which are captured by the MS, pass to the MCP and then arrive at the MLP, from where they can be retrieved and used.

Long-term memories (MLP)

We want to investigate a little about the MLP. We have already said that it is the most studied, since the idea of ​​”memory” fitted exactly with the MLP. That is, until not long ago memory was considered to be the ability to have memories.

In that case, the MLP is not uniform. It happens to be heterogeneous. This goes to demonstrate the complexity of the human memorization system. The truth is that long-term memory has the variants that we indicate below:

● Declarative and procedural memory: 

According to the neuropsychologist Larry Squire , it is possible to highlight two large groups of MLP, declarative memory and procedural memory.

  • Declarative memory: it is responsible for storing data and knowledge of facts and events. Thanks to this memory the subject can remember all the knowledge and facilitates the expression of thoughts.

That is, it is functional to remember the dimensions of the country where you live, the number of inhabitants or a familiar face, among many other data. It can be said that it is a fairly practical type of memory.

  • Procedural memory: it constitutes the skills that a person has together with knowledge about how to do their own tasks, such as preparing a plate of food, playing something, riding a bicycle, etc.

The knowledge stored in this memory is obtained by repetition, conditioning and, after it is acquired, it is unconscious.

It seems that it is a data memory and an experience memory. That is, they are memory modes that capture and store different things.

● Episodic and semantic memory: l

The diversity of long-term memory is recognized by psychologist Endel Tulving through these two types.

  • The episodic memory: includes the personal data that allow the individual to remember the dates, events or events lived in a specific time and place.

This memory allows you to make use of memories that were once shocking. The first couple relationship, the name of the first school teacher who taught him to read, the traffic accident from which he escaped, etc., are data from episodic memory.

Episodic memories come from sensory perception and the information that constitutes it is temporary. It must be said that they are important, they make up a good part of a sentimental memory.

  • Semantic memory: this name refers to the knowledge of the world and language , beyond the circumstances of its learning.

It is the cultural memory that includes concepts, norms, schemes, propositions and ideas . Any individual can recover this knowledge without having to refer to the date or place in which it was acquired.

It is a lasting memory because language or numerical skills are knowledge that is used throughout life. It is the academic memory, which to store data needs to understand them. In this, it differs from visual memory, for example

The foundations of these memories can be verified because in amnesic patients the memory of autobiographical episodes deteriorates ; they do not remember the actions of the previous day and do not retain new data in episodic memory.

On the other hand, they keep the language intact , the activity of the intelligence is normal and their semantic memory is not altered in any way. It is a memory capable of being preserved, which can be improved, even becoming a kind of acquired skill.

● Explicit and implicit memory

It is important to understand that memory is not synonymous with consciousness , since it is known that the subject learns things without being aware of how he does it. Based on how it is stored, memory is classified as explicit and implicit. We make the respective distinctions and explanations below:

  • The explicit memory: it is the one that stores the learning about places, events and people that can be described verbally and presumes a conscious or intentional discernment.
  • Implicit memory: it is the one that facilitates learning automatically and without great effort, therefore it is incidental.

It includes learning of a grammatical nature, which cannot necessarily be verbalized.

For example, people know how to spell in Spanish, but are unable to explain grammar rules. Other learnings include skateboarding, skiing, or driving a car, etc.

These are some of the most widely accepted memory classifications. Interestingly, none of these categories tend to be ruled out. In reality, each of them is considered to occur at a different level of processing.

Memory processing levels

As stated above, between the memories or structures there is a continuity in the processing of data . The information is captured by the MS, passes to the MCP and then reaches the MLP, from where it can be retrieved and used.

However , the psychologists Kenneth Craik and Robert S. Lochart (1972) do not share the thesis of multiple unitary memories and argue a theory parallel to the model of these well-differentiated structures, defended by the psychologists Atkinson and Schiffrin .

These specialists believe that memory is only one and is not a simple passive store. In addition, for them the way in which the information is processed determines the later memory.

In other words, the quality of what is remembered is directly proportional to how the data has been processed at the moment of encoding. To explain this, it is said that there are a variety of levels of memory processing.

A detailed explanation of the types of processing levels

What are the aforementioned levels? The levels of processing of the stimuli depend on the task required or the kind of learning performed. The data would be processed at three levels : superficial, intermediate and deep.

  • The superficial level of data processing corresponds to sensory stimuli (shape, color, taste, etc.). Its durability in mind is very fragile. 
  • The intermediate level of data processing encompasses the recognition of some trait.
  • The deep level of data processing implies a stable memory, because it demands a greater mental effort.

The memories of the events obey how they were encoded by the mind. The levels described above leave a mark on the memory and determine its later memory.

For example, it happens that learning that is easily obtained is forgotten more quickly than complex learning. This is what explains why some things are forgotten faster than others. Also, the reason why some memories seem eternal in people’s minds.

Recovery and forgetfulness

It is interesting to know that memories are never a true copy of what happened or was learned . An individual does not remember what he was or knew, but what he is and knows now.

In general, information is remembered more effectively when it is important and well structured ; however, there are other elements that intervene in the memory. Which are? Well, we indicate some below:

  1. The memory is subject to the context , this is something undoubted. The simple physical location makes us see things at different angles. In turn, cultural and other patterns influence.
  2. Temperament and memory play a significant role . People tend to remember sane things about their character. Likewise, a person’s education and experiences influence their way of remembering.
  3. The mind fills in the “gaps” in memory . We have already said that the memory of human beings is creative. Therefore, those memory gaps are usually filled one by mental activity.

We see then that memory always has something subjective. The memories are not the same for two people who shared the same event.

It must be taken into account that forgetting constitutes the inability to access the data in memory , rather than the loss of them. That is, the data is there. However, for some reason the memory process has locked them.

This is verified when people remember things in the middle of a hypnosis session. In this way, the mental obstacles that prevent access to certain agreements are eliminated .

Memory retrieval has been found to be easier in the same context where data absorption or learning occurred. The reason is that the human mind works a lot by association. By being back in the place where the events occurred, associations become easier and memory is more easily expressed.

Other factors that influence memory

The state of mind has a significant influence on the recovery of memories. The information that is best remembered is the interesting, the new and the emotionally attractive. When that same mood takes place, memories tend to recover more easily.

The memory is imperfect , the gaps that tend to arise are filled with false data. Which is very serious when it comes to testimonies about crimes. The information provided by a witness is not 100% reliable, but is one more element.

In addition, forgetting is a mechanism of the human mind itself to preserve its hygiene . For psychoanalysts it is a defense system : the brain protects itself from painful events, distancing them to a forgotten corner of consciousness. The past is in one way or another annulled.

The total recall would make it impossible human existence , so the memory is as relevant as forgetfulness . Obviously, forgetting in the terms described here does not constitute a pathology, but part of the constitution of a healthy mind.

Causes of memory loss

Now, the general causes that lead to the loss or interference of memories are the following:

  1. Injury or degeneration of parts of the brain
  2. The repression
  3. Interference
  4. The processing failure
  5. The inappropriate context.

As an epilogue to this article, memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease will be addressed however, it is already included here as part of the causes of memory loss.

In this sense, forgetfulness is typical in people who suffer a brain injury or neurological disorders involved with memory. The amnesia (including Alzheimer’s disease account), hipermnesia, paramnesia, or Korsakoff syndrome alcoholics are among those pathologies.

The repression is a mechanism unconscious of the human mind to forget or overcome the disturbing memories.

The interference of memories occurs by competition between past and present learning a person. There is proactive interference when the knowledge gained hinders further learning. For example, the retraining and updating of new computer skills in order to continue working in the area. When the knowledge acquired in computer science is obsolete in the face of new ones, resistance to learning can be generated.

On the other hand, retroactive interference occurs when confusion occurs in learning new knowledge over previous ones. It is typical that the memorization of a new language produces interference in the memory of those already learned.

The lack of data processing generates its forgetfulness . It is essential that the information is processed and used for the first time so that it does not fade over time.

The inappropriate context alters the retrieval of memories, to the same extent that it changes. It happens that situations similar or equal to those experienced when certain things were learned, bring to the present those apparently forgotten memories.

Epilogue. Memory impairment: Alzheimer’s disease

The Alzheimer ‘s disease is between amnesias, characterized by the total or partial loss of memory. Anterograde or fixation amnesia is the inability to obtain new data and remember episodes after a brain injury or degenerative disorder, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

In this sense, this disease is degenerative and becomes increasingly serious as it progresses. From the physiological point of view, it is a progressive dementia associated with the development of neurofibrillary plaques and knots that spread diffusely through various parts of the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus.

Although the disease is not homogeneous for all those who suffer from it, it affects the system of new explicit memories.

Here the various components of daily life are added together in the form of accumulated records of experience, that is, what the patient sees, hears, thinks and feels . This system is fundamental for the fixation of episodic memory and also supports the constitution of new semantic memories.

The most recurrent symptom is severe memory loss . Amnesia seems to be the only important sign that the patient manifests until he reaches a complete deterioration of his intellectual functioning.

The Alzheimer’s patient is similar to the amnesic patient, because he shows deficiencies in explicit memory. These alterations are most evident in long-term memory.

Regarding working memory , the evidence indicates that the return of this memory in Alzheimer’s patients and those with amnesia is normal enough. But, both patients are distinguished because the former manifest working memory disorders . Alzheimer’s patients show a reduction in the range of verbal and spatial memory.

The evidence then seems to indicate that amnesic patients have very poor explicit memory and normal implicit memory . Instead, Alzheimer’s patients fail in both memories.

In addition, there are deteriorations, depending on the progression of the disease, in the ability to establish semantic analogies. Studies in control groups show even more the complexity of the disease and its varied edges: its progress is inexorable towards the loss of all cognitive abilities.

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Alexa Clark specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She has experience in listening and welcoming in Individual Therapy and Couples Therapy. It meets demands such as generalized anxiety, professional, love and family conflicts, stress, depression, sexual dysfunction, grief, and adolescents from 15 years of age. Over the years, She felt the need to conduct the psychotherapy sessions with subtlety since She understands that the psychologist acts as a facilitator of self-understanding and self-acceptance, valuing each person's respect, uniqueness, and acceptance.

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