How memory works

Published: 2019-06-24 05:26:14
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Memory refers to the process by which the brain, collects, stores and retrieves information. The process begins when the brain detects stimulus from the environment, stores it and finally when the person attempts to retrieve it. One persons memory may not always be perfect, information stored may be distorted, as seen when certain memories distort the retrieval of other memories, a situation known as interference, or when ones ability to retrieve information is inhibited, a situation known as forgetting.

According to Atkinson and Shiffrins (1968) models of memory, the process consists of three components, these are; The sensory registers, the short term register and the long term, they refer to this component as the boxes'. The term boxes is used symbolically to represent the different stages or levels in which information is processed by the brain.According to the model, the sensory register (first box) is the level when the brain detects stimulus from the environment using the five senses (Sperling 1960). The process, however, does not involve processing, as the sensory nerves are constantly being bombarded by stimulus from the environment. As a result, the brain pays selective attention to the stimulus, which later determines how ones ability varies with his potential to retrieve information from the brain.

The short term register (second box) refers to the brain's current and conscious activity. This happens when the brain selectively attends to stimulus from the sensory registers (Glucksberg 1970), for instance, a person would tend to attend to a sudden change in the environment like, a sharp noise from the screech of a breaking car or smell from a leaking gas cylinder. According to the model, the amount of attention one accords a stimulus determines the brains retention capacity.

Information in the short-term register may last for between 18-19 seconds (Peterson 1959), to enhance the brains retention capacity, Atkinson and Shiffrin assert that, frequent attempts to retrieve certain information should be done, what they refer to as rehearsal. The more one rehearses certain information, the stronger his or her potential to recall that information.

The third component is the long-term register (the third box), this refers to that part of the memory that stores information for a long duration of time, this is the type of information that one has rehearsed for a long time and can be retrieved long after the event, experience or lesson. For instance, the names of relatives or subjects in school, this type of information is retained in the long term register.


As discussed earlier, interference may arise in two different ways, these are, proactive and retroactive interference, the former occurs when information that was previously stored in the long-term register inhibits the retention of new information. In such a case one experiences difficulties while trying to recall recent information, but remembers events in the past with ease. For instance, a Student may remember differentiation formulas taught in high school more easily than new formulas in college, in this case, the formulas rehearsed earlier may lower the students ability to retain new but related formulas for a longer time.

The latter form of interference occurs when new information inhibits ones ability to recant old information. For instance, a teacher may find it easy recalling the names of his students currently schooling, but find it difficult recalling the names of those who completed school earlier. In such a case, the brain retains recently rehearsed information but forgets the old one.

According to the model, students may counteract interference by applying different strategies depending on their memory. To enhance long-term memory, they would be encouraged to revise their work more frequently while working on one assignment at a time, a good way to do this may involve developing mnemonics, such as acronyms to retain large chunks of information.

To enhance retention of information in the short term register, the students should commit to specific areas for study, highlight key points in their notebooks while making notes, break down study periods and do take enough sleep and rest.


As discussed earlier, forgetting occurs when one's memory fades, in such a case, the person loses the ability to recall partial or total information. Different theories have been proposed to explain forgetting and highlight ways to overcome the same some of these are:

The trace decay theory: the proponents assert that, memory fades concerning time, and that retrieval of information is done through certain traces, if these traces are unused they fade and, as a result, one is not able to retrieve that information. To avoid this, the proponents suggest a frequent revision of information to boost memory.

Cue-dependent forgetting: The proponents assert that information retained in the memory is bounded to ones mood and emotions at the time. For instance, one may forget certain events in the past that were attached to certain emotions like being happy, or angered. To recall such information the person would need to assume similar situations or replicate them, what is referred to as semantic cues.

Absentmindedness: This type of forgetting occurs when one pays less attention to information, this may be seen in students who pay less attention to class work and end up failing their exams. Other kinds of forgetting may be explained by the interference and blocking theories. The strategies used to counteract interference may be applied to counteract forgetting.


Atkinson, R.C, Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its

control processes. In Spence, K.W.; Spence, J.T. The psychology of learning and motivation (volume 2). New York: Academic Press. Pp. 89-195.

Glucksberg (1970). Memory for nonattended auditory material. Cognitive psychology 1


Mondesire (n.d) forgetting classification and measurement for decomposition-based

reinforcement learning. . Retrieved November 28, 2015, from


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