Learning and Memory: How Do We Remember and Why Do We Often Forget?

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

Random numbers offer one level of memory challenge, while random information frequently exceeds its numerical cousins in difficulty. When attempting to memorize unrelated terms, mnemonics present the most practical solution. For students attempting to remember the most important neurotransmitters, the term “San Dope” works effectively.

Mnemonics: “SAN DOPE”

  • Serotonin 5-Hydroxytryptamine
  • Acetylcholine (ACh): Neurons that synthesize and release ACh are referred to as cholinergic neurons
  • Norepinephrine (NE)
  • Dopamine (DA)
  • Oxytocin
  • Phenylethanolamine **
  • Epinephrine (adrenaline)

** Phenylethanolamine
N-methyltransferase converts norepinephrine to epinephrine.

Whether you are a teacher, student or parent, there are numerous means by which memory can be enhanced. Hands-on, active learning is concisely captured in the following Chinese proverb:

I hear and I forget.
I read and I remember.
I do and I understand.

For millennia, learning by doing served societies well as the fundamental basis of apprenticeship and mentorship. However, the list of best memory techniques goes well beyond just doing.

When St. Anthony was pleadingly asked by a blind man, “What could be worse than losing your eyesight?” the Franciscan priest’s response was, “Losing sight of your vision.” Our vision for learning in our classrooms and homes should be crafted around the evolutionary history of the human brain. When we teach students to maximize their learning through multiple, related, firsthand active experiences, we teach them how to learn for a lifetime, rather than to memorize just for Friday’s test.

Visualization and Memory Lists

Review the following lists for 60 seconds each, then write down as many words as you can recall from each list.

List A             List B
design            hat
credit             sunshine
such               boat
pleasure        school
cannot           daisy
within            teacher
blank             water
quick             stairs
task               duck
settle             fish
into                baseball
their               teacher

Words that can be visualized are easier to recall.

What would happen to your recall after:

  1.  counting backwards by three beginning with the number 200?
  2.  studying information from five other unrelated subjects?
  3. writing a 500-word essay?
  4. a break of 10 minutes? one day? one week? one semester?

A Dictionary for Types of Memory

When someone tells you, “I think I’m losing my memory!” You might want to ask them, “Which memory?” We have several different memory types and pathways back to our memories.

  • AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MEMORIES are the specific memories about our personal lives that make us the unique individuals who we are.
  • CONDITIONAL MEMORIES represent our knowledge of when and where to deploy a skill to solve a problem or to produce additional knowledge (a “cognitive toolbox”).
  • CONCEPTUAL MEMORY is knowing what something is, how it works, etc., which can be knowledge gained by learning (apprenticeship or mentorship) as well as through the analytical process sense-making.
  • ECHOIC MEMORIES are auditory memories (of songs, voices and sounds).
  • EXPLICIT (declarative) MEMORIES are working (short-term) memories which can be further divided into semantic (isolated words, facts, symbols, etc.) memories and episodic memories, which are memories of locations, events, circumstances and space. These particular memory episodes in life would include memorable moments (e.g., a 21st birthday celebration in Las Vegas), where the details of the memory are embedded in the broader experience.
  • DECLARATIVE MEMORIES are memories that can be articulated easily (dates, historical facts, telephone numbers, etc.), including what we can recall in our minds as imagery. They are easily established and the specific information easily forgotten, which leads to frustrations in the classroom.
  • FLASHBULB MEMORIES are recollections of where you were when a historically or personally significant event took place — the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle, the assassination of JFK, the tearing down of the Berlin wall, the attack on the World Trade Center or your wedding day.
  • ICONIC MEMORIES are visual memories (pictures). Since human vision preceded writing, visualization is a powerful learning aid.
  • IMPLICIT (non-declarative) MEMORIES include things we can do (typewriting, bicycle-riding, playin tennis, etc.) which comprise procedural memories — physical skills that require repetitive practice to learn, such as the ability to dance, drive a car, tie one’s shoelaces or necktie. It constitutes the body’s sensory-motor library of skills. Motor memory is the body of learned motoric habits (playing basketball) where “the mind is in the muscle.” These are all described as non-declarative because we cannot say or “declare” how they are accomplished. How would you verbally explain riding a bicycle or dancing?
  • PERMANENT (long-term) MEMORY can be subdivided into explicit and implicit memories.
  • REFLECTIVE MEMORIES, or instinctive memories (e.g., knee-jerk response), are stored in the parietal lobes and the cerebellum. These memories can neither be trained for nor learned, since they occur naturally.
  • SENSORY MEMORY is the brief representation of a stimulus while it is being processed in one of the numerous sensory systems, most commonly tastes, smells, touch/textures, sights or sounds.
  • SOURCE MEMORY is knowing when and where a particular fact or aspect of knowledge was originally learned and how you came about knowing it. (When and where did you learn the significance of the date 1776?)
  • WORKING (short-term) MEMORY has a limited capacity of seven items and lasts approximately 30 seconds or less in duration.

Useful Memory Terminology for Parents and Educators

  • TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE PHENOMENON: When a person cannot recall the exact memory item but shows a slight degree of recall for one or more of its characteristics (“I think the name begins with the letter…”).
  • RETRIEVAL CUES: A clue or prompt that activates the retrieval of a particular piece of stored information from long-term memory. There are two types of retrieval cues: recognition (when a specific cue matches information already in permanent memory); and recall (the active process of searching one’s memory in order reproduce information).
  • RELEARNING: The situation where learning material a second time will typically will take less time and effort than initial learning.
  • PRIMACY EFFECT: Remembering information that appeared at the beginning of a lecture, an experience or a list.
  • RECENCY EFFECT: Remembering facts or information at the end of an experience or list. Thus, talent contestants prefer to be the first or last performer on stage.
  • PROACTIVE INTERFERENCE: Old information interferes with recall of new information. “The President of the United States is Donald ______.” “I love you, ______” (and mistakenly insert a former lover’s name).
  • RETROACTIVE INTERFERENCE: When new information interferes with the retrieval of stored memory. “I live at _____ .” (Your former address comes to mind, but not the current one).
  • DECAY THEORY: Specific memories and details fade with time.
  • MOTIVATED FORGETTING (repression): Involves the deliberate loss of painful memories (protective memory loss).
  • RETRIEVAL FAILURES: Occur when information known to be stored in long-term memory cannot be brought to consciousness.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)


  1. After looking into a handful of the blog posts on your website, I
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  2. IMPLICIT (non-declarative) MEMORIES

    Is it possible to strength implicit memories by Visualization (for already have some extend of practice) ? e.g. car driving , have done practice few times reverse parking , then by visualizing further without physically doing it , would strength implicit memory on that ? Would it strength neuro paths ?

  3. This is a nicely written summary of a lot of good information about how the brain works.

    Understanding how YOU learn is also a helpful ancillary support mechanism, though.

    My memory for academic things is “loose” and I am not visual in nature, so simply seeing something is not all that good for my recall. I need the auditory mode to be working along with some kind of kinesthetic anchoring system to get and keep memories. Not so hard, but my whole entire educational history was un-marked by any understanding of how to put things together.

    Memonics are one way to improve memory. Writing is another (to add the auditory kinesthetic). Group discussions of materials can work really well for some (study groups can be a good tactic if the group understands the learning dynamics). Team learning is also useful.

    Some of us are more distracted than others when learning.

    Understanding state-dependent-learning (your example of adding coffee changing the biological state making recall MORE difficult) and learning some other individual tricks is quite useful.

    I wish our schools taught more about “Learning to Learn” and less about “Teaching to the Test.” Once one knows a bit more about one’s personal learning style, and a few memory tricks like recall and spaced repetition and similar, we could dramatically improve performance in the classroom and life.

    WHY do people have to pay money to go to a Dale Carnegie course (for example) to learn the simple mechanisms and mechanics of remembering people’s names, for example. Why can we teach, “1 – run – (situation), 2 – zoo (situation 2) and so forth to children so that they can have some strategies for improving memory and thus performance?

    Why don’t we teach speed-reading or photo-reading in the schools? Why should we force our kids to memorize all the stupid dates – “1015 – The Magna Carta” — when it is SO easy to take one’s phone and get all the information?


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