The mysteries of memory | Sunday Observer

The mysteries of memory

It is strange but true that everything you have ever read or seen is stored somewhere in your memory. The problem is, you cannot get at it easily. When you cannot recall something, you say you have a poor memory. In fact your memory is not poor but wonderful, but you have to do something to use it properly. Most of us can rattle off the names of our favourite primary school teachers and friends we associated with. However, we cannot recall what we had for breakfast yesterday. While some people are gifted with a good memory others have poor memories.

Every day we go through a sea of experiences. We meet all types of people, read all kinds of newspapers, magazines and books. We eat a variety of food, and hear all kinds of voices, noises and sometimes we feel like sticking our fingers in our ears. However, we cannot stop hearing, tasting and feeling because they happen quite naturally, every moment of our waking life. Even if you stop reading this column for a few seconds and look around the room you are in, you will begin to register many things within the scope of your vision. In a moment we forget everything we saw or heard. Why does our sensory memory vanish so fast?

Long-term memory

We can hold on to such fleeting memories for a long time if we care to pay conscious attention to our sensory inputs. In the classroom we do this effectively. We are motivated to remember the facts and opinions expressed by the teacher. If we forget them, we fail in the examination. This brings us to an important point. If we focus on something, we can easily pass the information to the memory level known as short-term memory. Then you will be able to recall the information you gathered in the classroom. However, our short-term memory will not last long. As a result, you forget what you learnt in the classroom, the following day. Yet, we need the short-term memory in our daily activities. When you go to the supermarket your short-term memory will tell you what to buy. However, if a doctor gives an appointment, you will forget it unless you write it down.

Why do we take down notes while listening to a lecture? We do this to pass the information to our long-term memory. With this we have the potential to remember the facts and figures until we sit the examination. Sometimes, immediately after the examination we forget everything we studied!

When you wish to remember something for a long time, you have to make a conscious attempt to remember it. Consciousness steps in only when it is needed. For instance, a skilled tennis player does not work out where to place the racquet his or her feet when playing a shot. The player will make a conscious decision only when she is facing a special problem.

Episodic memory

Psychologists have divided the long-term memory into three main types. When you are struggling to recall the year the Portuguese arrived in Ceylon, you are grappling with your semantic memory. This type of memory involves using the most appropriate words to describe something. For instance, I am using my semantic memory to write this column. It deals with the recording of facts I had learnt. When we use semantic memory our left hemisphere is involved in expressing and understanding language. You will never forget the day you kissed a boy or a girl for the first time in your life. This is because your first kiss is a milestone in your life. Similarly, you will never forget the first day in school or the first day of your job. We also remember very unpleasant or embarrassing experiences without much effort. However, we may not remember the more mundane events in our life. It is our episodic memory that helps us to remember important events. Episodic memory comes into play when we wish to recall personal events. It is active when you remember how bored you were at the last board meeting.

I learnt how to ride a bicycle when I was 10 years old. Even after six decades I still ride the bicycle without much effort. This is possible thanks to our procedural memory which is also known as muscle memory. Today, when I type this column on my laptop, I am using my procedural memory. I look at the screen rather than the keyboard as I type because I remember this procedure from years of practice. Procedural memory is responsible for acquired habits and motor skills, such as the ability to drive a car or ride a motorcycle. We acquire procedural memory through constant practice. It is stored throughout the brain and remains immune to factors that cause memory loss. Even Alzheimer’s patients retain their basic motor skills even when the disease robs them of the ability to recall a family member’s name.

Sometimes, we try to recall a fact that eludes us. You cannot remember where you kept your car keys or the date and time of the next board meeting. What do we do on such occasions? Psychologists ask you not to panic if you have lost your car keys. If you panic, things would turn out to be worse. The only course of action is to recall the last time you had your car keys. Where were you at that time? What were you doing? Was it raining? Answers to these questions would elicit some clues. You might suddenly remember giving your car keys to your secretary while looking for an important file. Or you will remember that you left the keys on your table.


Our brains have the wonderful ability to revisit our memories backwards and forwards. As the memories are stored in your brain, you should know how to hunt for them. Allow the brain to sort out and the memory will come back to you. For this you need loads of patience. You cannot rush memory if you expect good results.

Sometimes, we wonder how some people have a photographic memory even in their old age. This is because they remember events differently. How much can you remember after listening to a speech delivered by a politician? If you like him, what he said will stick in your mind. If you do not like him, you will forget everything he said.

Recalling facts and events is not a simple process. It calls up the information from diverse locations in the brain. Some of our memories tend to persist better than others. However, there are pragmatic ways to remember something important. Pay attention to what you wish to remember. If you are a lover of the language, you will remember new words easily. If you do not like a certain subject, your brain will not bother to remember anything related to it.

Constant practice and repetition will help you to remember important facts and figures. Each time you review or revisit a fact, each time you repeat it, the pathway becomes a little stronger. Everything depends on your emotional state and how well you take care of yourself. The message is loud and clear: If you take time to practise something, your memory in that particular area of expertise will improve tremendously.

[email protected]