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Understanding Long-term Memory

Understanding Long-term Memory

If you have ever felt the frustration of not being able to recall something you learned just the day before, you know that there is a huge difference between your short-term and long-term memory. This article can help you understand why you forgot something that you need to remember, and what you can do to make sure you are less likely to forget the next time.

Defining Long-term Memory

From a scientific perspective, your long-term memory is simply the way your mind stores information over a longer period of time. From a practical standpoint, anything that you remember from more than a couple of minutes ago is currently stored in your long-term memory. Short-term memory operates in seconds, not minutes.

Of course, your initial reaction is to point out that minutes are not a long period of time. However, the information is stored in the same way that your memories from 10 years ago are stored, not the same way your short-term information is stored.

All of your long-term memories are stored without you being aware of it. They are also part of your working memory, or things that you can recall later. The more you emphasize certain information, the easier it will be to recall that information from your long-term memory.

Some things require very little work to commit to memory, such as the day you graduate or experience a life changing event. Even though those events only happen only once, you are able to recall them far easier than your password from two years ago, something that you typed five or six times a day for months or even years. This is because of the way the memories were stored. You were more intent on the experience, which helped your brain to identify it as critical. You can remember types of memories, but one that your brain considers to be important requires a lot less prompting.

The more often you access memories, the quicker your brain will recall them the next time. This is because your brain creates a stronger connection for things that you actively work to recall.

How Long You Can Expect Long-term Memory to Last

Short-term memories move to long-term memories depending on how you feed your brain the information. Once a memory is consolidated into your long-term memory, you will be able to remember it at a later point in time.

However, there really isn’t a set period for how long you can expect your long-term memories to last. The duration depends on several other factors.

  • How the information was received, such the day your baby was born. The emotions and details are very memorable, and your brain retained them much easier than it does a mundane task.
  • Your awareness of the information when it was processed. The more aware you are as an event occurs, the easier the information will be to recall later.
  • The more often you recall something, the easier it will be to recall it later.

The Two Types of Long-term Memory

In addition to how you feed your brain information, the type of long-term memory you are dealing with plays a role in how you recall information.

  • Explicit memories, or declarative memories, are memories that you make when you are awake and aware. Scientist even break explicit memories down further into semantic memories (what you know about the world) and episodic memories (those associated with specific events). Regardless of what you call them, these memories are all formed while you are conscious.
  • Implicit memories are formed mostly when you are unconscious or unaware. A classification of these types of memories is also called procedural memories, or things that you do without thinking, such as body movements like driving a car. At some point, you stopped paying attention and let your body take over while your brain worked on something else.

Change of Thought on Long-term Memory

Short-term and long-term memories are often equated with temporary computer storage, and more permanent storage (although no information is guaranteed to be permanently stored in your mind). When you need information, you access your long-term memory and it retrieves and returns the information that you requested.

However, scientists are increasingly convinced that memories are not stored in the way originally thought. Instead of residing in a static state, your brain transforms the information every time you require it the information to be recalled. As frequently recalling the information strengthens your ability to recall it again, subtle changes are made as the brain re-encodes the information. This explains why your memory of a picture is different as an adult than it was when you were a child.

There is also the problem of your brain desiring to fill in gaps when recalling. If you witness a theft, when you try to recall all of the details, your brain may fill in details that are either inaccurate or downright wrong. It is trying to make sense of what you saw and experienced, and wants to give you as much data as you need.