How Memory Works: 21 Psychological Insights

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Find out how memory twists, pops, distorts, persists and decays, along with the odd tip on how to improve it.

“You think you have a memory; but it has you!” —John Irving.

Irving’s quote nicely captures our hunch that we are slaves to our memories. Will I recall someone’s name? What moment from my past will come back to delight, perplex or daunt me? And at other times we ask ourselves why we seem unable to forget.

These uncertainties prompt many people to say their memory is awful, a comment distinguished memory researcher Professor Alan Baddeley hears all the time. But be fair, he argues:

“I have a good memory and would argue, despite its occasionally embarrassing fallibility, that both my memory and yours exceed that of the best computer in terms of capacity, flexibility, and durability.” (Baddeley, 1999)

At times it may not feel like it and that’s partly because human memory follows its own rules, not the ones we imagine or prefer. To help us use our memories more effectively we need a better understanding of how it really works so that, hopefully, we can forgive its eccentricities.

Here are 21 of my favourite articles on the mysteries of memory, culled from PsyBlog’s archives:

  1. How Memory Works: 10 Things Most People Get Wrong – “If we remembered everything we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.” —William James
  2. Why People’s Names Are So Hard to Remember – Why people’s names are more difficult to remember than their jobs, hobbies or home towns.
  3. How Memories are Distorted and Invented: Misattribution – One evening in 1975 an unsuspecting Australian psychologist, Donald M. Thomson, walked into a television studio to discuss the psychology of eyewitness testimony, little did he know…
  4. Memory Improved 20% by Nature Walk – Short-term memory is improved 20% by walking in nature, or even just by looking at an image of a natural scene.
  5. Absent-Mindedness: A Blessing in Disguise? – The benefits of forgetting.
  6. Mind Pops: Memories That Come From Nowhere  – Cheese grater. Why do odd images suddenly pop into your head for no reason?
  7. How Quickly We Forget: The Transience of Memory – How recall fades over time.
  8. Reconstructing the Past: How Recalling Memories Alters Them – Experiment shows both the enhancing and distorting effects of recall on the original memories.
  9. Can Doodling Improve Memory and Concentration? – Doodling may be more than just a pleasant waste of time and paper.
  10. On the Tip-of-the-Tongue: Blocked Memories – College students have one or two ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ moments a week, while older adults have between two to four per week.
  11. Six Memory Myths – Can flashbulb memories be distorted? Some of the most widespread beliefs about memory are plain wrong.
  12. Memory Improved By Saying Words Aloud – Memory can be improved by vocalising or sub-vocalising words.
  13. Infant Memory Works From Very Early - Some argue it’s impossible for us to remember anything much from before around two to four years of age—but is that true?
  14. Memories Are Made of This – Study records the activation of human brain cells deep inside the living brain as memories are formed and recalled.
  15. Memory Enhanced by a Simple Break After Reading – If you find it difficult to remember what you’ve read, try giving the memory time to consolidate.
  16. The Persistence of Memory – Being unable to forget is a double-edged sword.
  17. 7 Simple Ways to Improve Your Memory Without Any Training – Boost your memory by writing about your problems, predicting your performance and more…
  18. How the Consistency Bias Warps Our Personal and Political Memories – What were your political views a decade ago? How good was your relationship last year? Studies show we often assume things haven’t changed, when in fact they have.
  19. The Temporal Doppler Effect: Why The Future Feels Closer Than The Past – Like the sound of a passing ambulance siren, our perception of time distorts as it shoots by.
  20. Implanting False Memories: Lost in the Mall & Paul Ingram – “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, or whatever it is that you think you remember?” — Elizabeth Loftus
  21. Offline Learning: How The Mind Learns During Sleep – A nap as short as 6 minutes after learning can help to consolidate learning and improve performance.
  22. 10 Surprising and (Mostly) Easy Ways to Improve Your Memory – Improve your memory by clenching your right fist, chewing gum, walking, ignoring stereotypes, sniffing rosemary and more…

Image credit: Mike Bailey-Gates

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 14 June 2013

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