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. I’m not close to the same level as the researchers but I just had a couple thoughts, as a generally intelligent person.
    First I wish I could sit down with one of the people doing this research for even an hour to be able to ask them some things I don’t get or don’t believe or disagree with because I’m sometimes skeptical. Anyone know a memory specialist willing to talk to a stranger about their work?
    What makes me unable to believe some of the conclusions made is that a lot of it seems to come from analysis of certain cells and/or mice involving shining light in certain areas. It just doesn’t seems like the right thing is being observed or not the right way. As I said, I don’t know and may be 100% wrong but my gut tells me it’s not accurate enough to say it’s known how memory works.
    If possible, wouldn’t a more accurate test be to give a number of subjects the same input simultaneously and monitor each’s brain as it is absorbed? Then to ask each questions about the input and see what part/s become active and perhaps see what is missing when one can’t remember and another can immediately? It just doesn’t seem possible to follow individual cells traveling the speed they do. And if it’s not actually within the brain at the time or part of a simulation, I don’t think it will give the answers we’re after.
    Right now I’m imaginging a line of people sitting in recliners with electrodes all over their heads watching a single screen. I’ve had an EEG before and given plasma/blood so those memories are now playing but only snippets because who remembers every detail of everything? Oh yeah, some do. They should be added to the test for comparison, and… done.
    The last thing I would love to discuss if I ever get the chance is that I’ve heard that though we cannot recall every detail of events, our brain is actually taking in every sound, smell, sight, feeling and taste every second of every day. It’s simply not necessary for us to retain all that but it happens. Sleep is when the brain is able to go through and according to priority and patterns of recall it has learned along the way it sorts it all with the most likely to be needed items more readily available. Personally, I think when you can’t put a name to a face, don’t remember who was with you certain times, identify a scent but know it, these are just things misfiled as less important based on every prior memory you wanted to access. But technically the info is there.
    Sorry for the length, thanks if you made it through. I’m just fascinated by things like this and haven’t found the answers yet, if they are out there at all. I hope so. Feel free to email and learn me somethin’.

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