How Do We... What was it... Remember Things?

What's the best way of remembering things and how exactly does the process of memory work?
Trevor English

Memory isn't just a thing that occurs in your brain. You can't just will a memory into existence, you have to form it.

Our brains have a variety of processes – many of which we're still learning about – that define how and why memories are stored and how they are recalled. Scientists, specifically neuroscientists, have known for years that the state of life that a certain person is in, young, old, stressed, calm, etc., can interfere with the process of memory encoding in the mind. 

It is now starting to emerge that when you forget something, you aren't actually bad at remembering things, rather it's just your brain reorganizing so it can focus on more important things. There are even leading theories that your brain stores everything that ever happened to you in memory, it just only forms neuropathways to the memories that it deems important. 

This may sound insane, but there's good evidence that this may be the case as certain medical disorders cause people to remember everything that ever happened to them. Like the boy in the video below:

Memories, or rather the neuropathways that are used to recall them, are strengthened each time that we remember them. Actively practicing recalling a memory, like studying for a test, will increase your brain's ability to remember. 

So, how then can we get better at remembering things if we understand the basic principle?

The Best Ways to Remember

Several studies by top psychologists and neuroscientists suggest that taking quizzes and practicing and succeeding at the act of remembering something is far superior to flat out memorization. These studies specifically had students use different memorization means to learn the translation of words in a foreign language. 

One Group just studied the word with their translations. Another was consistently quizzed until they could recall the translation. Another was quizzed until they could recall the translation three times in a row, and the fourth was the same as the third but with more time in-between.

After a week of waiting, the students were then quizzed again. The groups that were quizzed got 80% of the words right after a week. The others? 25% or below.

This led researchers to conclude, with actual data, that study methods like flashcards or constant quizzing help students retain memories. These same principles can be applied to solidify your memories in your head. 

Another key way of remembering things that date back to the ancient Greeks is the idea of a "Memory Palace." This is a means of memorization that involves creating a visual story around the words or characters that you're trying to remember. This is still used today by many, specifically super memorizers that use it to memorize thousands of digits of pi. Just take a look at the video below to see how effective it is.

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Creating a Memory Palace is easy, you just imagine walking through a familiar place, one you know well, and add in weird associations or objects that tie to what is being memorized. Things like a frog wearing a tux sitting on your kitchen counter. This might help you remember that in a book you're reading the butler croaked (died) in the kitchen. While that tidbit of knowledge is probably inconsequential to anything, the same principle can be applied to essentially anything. 

According to professional memorizers, the trick is to make the things in the memory palace as crazy, weird, funny, raunchy, and as stinky as possible. Going for absurdities makes things much more unforgettable.

All of these techniques tie back to the core tenant of this article, how does memory work. 

How Memories are Encoded into the Brain

Encoding a memory into the brain is a biological event that is based on sensory experience – at least, that's what the encoding process starts with. You likely remember the first person that kissed you because your visual and emotional systems registered certain aspects of that person. These senses aren't memory on their own, but due to the significance of the event, at least according to your brain, these senses get encoded as a memory. 


This all takes place in the hippocampus along with the frontal cortex in your brain. These two parts together are believed to be responsible for analyzing the events that you undergo and making the decision of whether they will need to be remembered in the future. This is the process that takes a short-term memory and encodes it as a long term one. 

We know that the parts of an event are stored in various different parts of the brain in a memory, but neuroscientists are still learning how all of those events get tied back together in the process of memory recall. 

At their core, memories are stored as electrical and chemical signals in the brain. Nerve cells connect together in certain patterns, called synapses, and the act of remembering something is just your brain triggering these synapses. When you build memory, you're essentially telling your brain's electrician to lay some new wiring up there. When you remember something, it's like flipping the light switch and seeing the wiring work as designed – the light comes on.

All that said, new research is revealing that this brain wiring isn't permanent and rather that it changes all the time. Brain cells work together to make the brain as efficient as possible. Sometimes that means that certain pathways for memories are moved, but still kept, and other times that means that some electrical pathways in the brain are cut off altogether. As synapses in the brain fire, they get stronger and stronger as the brain devotes more resources to make sure they don't break in the future. This flexibility and change that is constantly occurring in the brain is called neuroplasticity. 

Want to learn some more fascinating facts about the human brain? This video we found below goes into 50 as quick as possible.