Human memory is more complex than you think, but once you understand how the brain works, it becomes much easier to improve it. Here’s an overview of how memory works, and how you can train your mind to get better at remembering everything from facts for quizzes to science and art.

The Basics of Memory

Memory is not something you can touch — it’s a process. People used to talk about memory as if it was a filing cabinet, but experts now believe it’s much more complex: it’s a process that spreads across the brain. For example, if you were asked to remember what breakfast was this morning and an image of fried eggs popped up, you didn’t pull that image from some mental alleyway. Instead, it was reassembled from many different impressions scattered web-like throughout your brain.

Every single memory is actually a very complex construct. If you consider an object like a pen, the brain pulls the object’s name, function, shape, the sound it makes going across a page, and more from different brain regions in order to reconstruct your memory of a “pen.” Similarly, if you ride a bike, remembering how to operate it comes from one set of cells, remembering how to get from here to there comes from another, remembering what to do to stay safe while riding comes from still another region, and so forth. Of course you’re not aware that all these experiences come from different regions of your brain — they work together seamlessly. As a matter of fact, research suggests there isn’t any firm distinction between the way you remember and the way you think.

One thing worth remembering: science still doesn’t fully understand how memory works, and we still don’t quite know exactly what happens when memories are recalled or how remembering works exactly. But we have enough information to make a few educated guesses.

Encoding, Storage, Retrieval

The way you use your brain determines how it’s organised — this is called neuroplasticity, and it means your brain can actually rewire itself if it becomes damaged. But how does information get lodged in it in the first place?

The first step is called encoding, and it starts with perception. When something happens that you remember, the sensory perceptions like colours and sounds travel to a region of the brain known as a hippocampus. This sorts through the data and appears to choose which aspects are worth remembering, and from there they are stored in the different regions of the brain.

The changes formed by a particular experience get stronger with use. This is why playing a given piece of music repeatedly means you get better at playing it, and why studying helps you improve on tests. At the same time, in order to properly encode the memory, you need to be paying attention — if you’re distracted while reading a report, you simply won’t remember it as well; that’s why, for example, the teachers around the world are more and more willing to employ so called ‘constructivist learning’ which keeps students active, interested and paying attention.

After the memory has been encoded, it is stored in either short-term memory or long-term memory. The former is fairly limited in capacity, experts suggest it can hold around 7 items for no longer than 20-30 seconds. If the information is important — that is, if it’s used frequently or repeated — it is slowly transferred into long-term memory, which appears to have an infinite capacity to store information forever.

Finally, when you want to remember a given detail, it is retrieved from memory. If you’ve ever found you couldn’t remember something, but then it popped up into mind later, there was a problem with retrieving the memory, such as a mis-match between the retrieval “cue” you were using to look for it and how the information was encoded.

Improving Memory

If you’d like to perform better on quizzes, remember scientific facts, improve your knowledge of art history, any number of other memory-related tasks or use your brain to preform better researches and write good quality essays, ultimately the challenge comes down to improving the 3-step memory system. You must be able to clearly register the initial facts (encode them). You must be able to retain them (storage). And, you must be able to retrieve them accurately.

Some people, known as those with “highly superior autobiographical memories” or HSAMs, have extremely good memories already. But even if you don’t, techniques known as mnemonics can help you remember nearly anything better. For example, imagine creating a room in your imagination. Now, place objects around the room which are related to the facts you’d like to remember. You might turn the door to the room into the cover of a book, or have your checkbook pop up out of the toaster. The weirder and more vivid, the better!

There are many more mnemonic techniques out there, suited to remembering many different kinds of things. But, with a little research, you too can have a superior memory.