Memory Mechanics

In my quest to understand how human capacity for memory has changed over time, I started by investigating the mechanisms behind how memory is formed, as well as reading primary research papers on factors that could influence memory. This research yielded a plethora of information, and to adequately explain all that I have learned of the details of memory framework here would be daunting to say the least. Instead, I will give a brief overview of some basic concepts; more complete information will be available in my final project.

There are several proposed theories on the formation of memory. The systems view holds that memory is separated into subcategories (long term memory, short term memory, working memory, sensory memory, etc.) which function independently and reside in different areas of the brain. These systems work together to allow humans to take in information and recall it later at will. If you cannot remember something, it must be because it never made it to your long term memory. Another theory is the levels of processing model, which states that all aspects of memory systems are connected. In this theory, whether or not you remember something depends on how deeply you were paying attention when you first learned it- shallowly encoded information will be more difficult to access. Both systems present supporting evidence, but over time numerous studies have been released with results that cannot be explained by either model. At present, the most widely accepted theory at is the encoding-retrieval model. This model is built around the cue-driven principle, which states that memories are encoded as we observe the world and certain cues are needed to access them. For something that is deeply encoded, a wide variety of cues might remind you of that fact, allowing you to access the information easily. In other scenarios, you might require a specific environment to trigger your memory, or an extremely specific cue that exactly corresponds to the memory you are trying to reach.

Biologically, memory formation changes brain structure. Synapses in the brain become stronger after associations are initially made, a process known as long-term potentiation. These strengthened synapses allow memory to be expressed, but recent research indicates that memories are not physically stored at these junctures. Whether or not memories are associated with a physical location in the brain, and if so, where that location is, is still being debated.

The effects of relatively new technologies like the internet and smart phones are still being investigated, but what we have already discovered is incredibly alarming. Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains, explains that the internet constantly interrupts our train of thought, making it difficult to encode accessible long-term memories. The constant googling and clicking on hyperlinks can impede our ability to think linearly and removes the motivation to remember much of what we learn.

This summary is only a small sampling of my research thus far, but I look forward to sharing it with you in my final project! Stay tuned for my next post, where I will explore the use of memory in various cultures throughout history.



  1. kjdiestelow says:

    Hello Caaroline,

    This is very interesting research! I think studying memory in different cultures throughout time will provide interesting information on how memory has functioned and changed through history. Have you given much thought to how you will scientifically determine how memory functioned/what memory capabilities were in the more ancient civilizations you are studying? I see that as being a potentially difficult task.


  2. nacarrillovall says:

    Your research topic is really intriguing! Not only that, but it is quite relevant in today’s technology driven society. You can find someone with their phone in their hand anywhere you go, and I admit that I myself pay less attention to my surroundings when on my phone or laptop, and “encode” less information if I am multitasking. After you finish your research, maybe you can predict how the human memory will change in the coming years, when technology’s presence will only increase. Of course, this varies across cultures, for there are some that use technology and the internet less than others, but I think the use of technology will only increase in the United States!