God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” ― J.M. Barrie
Our long term memory might be unlimited in it's storage capability. But we have to know how it sorts information before we can harness that to it's full potential. We've talked before about the 'multi-store' model of memory, the 'magic number' crucial to our memory's success and how, while too simple to be complete, it's a very useful way of thinking about how our memory works. But the long term memory is really a store of several different types of information:
Declarative memory - this is our store of facts, the stuff we can 'declare. It consists of two further sub-categories, episodic memory and semantic memory. Semantic memory refers to our general knowledge about the world (like what a printer is or that birds have wings). Episodic memory is what we most often talk about when we think about memory, it refers to our recollections of events.
Procedural memory - refers to our muscle memory; our ability to carry out actions and carry out motions without necessarily thinking about the process.
Now these kinds of memory are all closely tied. In the 1970's we had Fergus Craik and Robert Lockhart (and later Endel Tulving, all memory psychology giants) come up with the levels-of-processing model. They ignored the kind of multi-store model that described short term, sensory and long term memory and instead focussed on the interactions between the different processes. They found that we remember better the deeper we process things.
We start with structural or visual recognition, move to phonemic processing (we start to process how the words sound), or essentially the sensory recognition of what we're trying to remember. By going over these things again and again, we can keep them in our mind. It's when we relate it to similar concepts that it really get's stored away. They called it semantic processing, and essentially describe that when we process the meaning of something we create links that make it more permanent.
Check out this video to see it in action:
They suggest that ELABORATING on things is the best way to try to learn something, by tying it into the meaning already existing in that semantic part of our memory.
But we can process things further. Learning how to tie your shoelaces starts out as a semantic, declarative memory. You might take a while to remember the process. But then you do it once and it also becomes an episodic memory. When you create enough episodic memories, it becomes a procedural memory. And procedural memory is one of the strongest types of memory.
So what's the key to remembering? Make links. Don't rely on rehearsal, or just going over the material. If you really want to harness the potential of your potentially unlimited memory store, you've got to tie it into whatever is already there.
Memory best practice aside, try as you might, sometimes our memory just won't work (and if it doesn't it might be something sinister). And sometimes, things can slip into our memory without our even knowing (like subliminal messages). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.