Psychology and Memory

How do we store our memories?  What is the biology behind memories? How can I use this information to pass this stupid exam that I am studying for?  When we look at psychology and memory, it is about so much more than what part of the brain is responsible for memories, its also about how they are stored and classified and what is helpful at enhancing that memory.

On the EPPP memory falls under the topic of Cognitive-Affective Bases of Behavior which is weighted at 13%, so you should know this topic fairly well. The information is best used in collaboration with your own knowledge and what you have already been taught, your previous notes or textbooks, and research if you need more information on a particular topic.  Or you could check out the product reviews page to see a variety of products to help you pass the EPPP.

The Brain and Memory

rememberIt is agreed that the brain is responsible for storing and retrieving memories, and damage to the brain can cause conditions such as amnesia.  But unlike many other parts of the brain, there is no one part of the brain that memory is localized in.  Damage to one localized area may have significant impact on a specific type of memory, but it appears that different parts of the brain are responsible for different aspects of memory.

Karl Lashley between 1915 and 1950 set out to discover where memory was located by removing the cortex or cutting of fiber pathways in rats, but ended up disproving his own hypothesis.  After hundreds of experiments he could not find one localized section of the brain that controlled memory. Although in 1953 William Scoville performed surgery on his patient HM in an attempt to control seizures, and found that after surgery HM had intact long term memories, but could not develop any new short term memories.

It is believed that overall the areas of the brain that are responsible for memory are the frontal lobe (short-term memory), temporal cortex, hippocampus, thalamus, mamillary bodies and the basal forebrain.  The neurotransmitter acetylcholine is also thought to have an impact on memory and deficits are seen in patient’s with Alzheimer’s disease. Long term potential is when short term memories become long term memories. Repeated stimulation of a particular synapse causes structural and chemical changes in the dendrite of the receiving neuron, and increases the sensitivity of that particular neuron to stimulation.

Memory Stages

Thus far researchers agree that there are at least 3 stages of memory.

Sensory Memory: This is a very short term memory, and holds the input for about half a second.  It is an automatic response, and is how you are able to remember something after only being presented with it for half a second. Iconic memory is visual information, echoic memory is auditory information and haptic memory is touch stimuli.  Some information will transfer to short term memory through the process of selective attention, most likely stimuli that are novel or in regard to satisfying basic needs.

Short Term Memory: While this memory is a little longer than sensory memory, not by much and is able to hold information for up to 1 minute. There are 2 components, Primary Memory basically holds information without manipulating it (eg remember 5 digits), where as Working Memory holds the information and manipulates if (eg saying the same 5 digits in reverse order).

George A. Miller conducted experiments on memory and determines that people can generally remember 7 items, plus or minus 2 (so anywhere from 5-9). So a 7 digit phone number of 5-5-5-6-7-8-1 is a good length for us to remember, but in order to make this easier we typically use Chunking to separate the units so there are less components to remember.  This is why a phone number would be written as 555-6781, in order to make it easier to remember.

Another way we remember information easier is by combining one or more sense with a verbal cue.  For example a textbook that has pictures that are relevant to the text will help someone to remember the information better than just reading the words.  Even when hearing the word “dog” our mind will picture a dog, or when we see a dog our mind will combine it with the word “dog” to process this better in our short term memory.


Long Term Memory: There is no limit to long term memory, and so far no research has shown what the maximum capacity to long term memory is. Long term memory can be divided into Recent Memory, which is about 2 weeks, and Remote Memory which can last many years.  REM sleep is thought to play a role in processing and categorizing long term memories.  There are a few key terms to long-term memory.

  • Retrieval: This is basically the process of accessing long term memories, and bringing them into short term memory for processing and awareness.  A cue of some sort will start the retrieval process, either through recognition or recall. For example, Imagine you see an actor in a movie, and you know you have seen them before but you can’t think of where.  This trying to remember is your brain searching you long term memory, then you will have an ‘aha’ moment and you can not only clearly remember the movie you previously saw them in, but the entire movie and other actors in the cast.  This is because like a computer, your brain has pulled the whole file out of long term memory and into short term memory for you to see, and this file will include other information including other actors and the plot line of the movie.
  • Priming: This describes exposure to a stimuli, so your brain can be trained to recognize this stimulus at a later time and recall information from long term memory easier.  This is the reason for flashcards when studying for an exam.
  • Redintigration: when a stimuli unlocks a chain of memories very rapidly.  For example vegetable soup remind you of your Grandma, and your cousins, one in particular who was mean to you, and a particular even where you were locked in a cellar, and how the dark scared you.
  • Zeigarnik Effect: This is the tendency to remember and work on incomplete tasks.  It seems that if a person is trying to remember something and can’t, their brain will work on unconsciously until it comes to some sort of a conclusion.  You may be particular in tuned to this when you are trying to go to bead and you can’t seem to get your mind off of something).
  • Flashbulb Memories: These are very vivid and distinct memories, often time with a traumatic nature.  There is such a strong emotional response when they are encoded that they tend to have great detail.  For example, if you have every lost a loved one very suddenly you most likely remember what you were wearing, where you were when you found out, and a clear sequence of events afterwards.
  • Prospective Memories: This is remembering future planned events at a particular time.  For example, remembering on Monday a 11:00am you have a dentist appointment.  The problem is often times people forget what they had planned to do at a particular time, A timer or alarm may be set as a cue, but even at that sometimes people still don’t remember what the cue is for.
  • Landmark Events: If we have difficulty remembering an event we may go to back to major life events to help us remember.  For example, you may try to remember when you met a particular friend and go back to when you got married and realize you didn’t know them at that time, but by the time you had your first child your friend was in your life.
  • Hypnosis: Typically while in a hypnotic state an individual can remember details better, but despite the individual being very confident in these details, research shows that they often use their imagination to fill gaps and can be easily led by the therapist.

Memory Classification

There is more than one way to classify memory, one schema divides explicit and implicit memory.

Explicit Memory: This is what we consciously recall, and is divided into 2 parts. Semantic Memory is the memory of facts and the meaning of words.  These are typically abstract ideas that or images.  For example, the memory of different colors, the 7 days of the week, the alphabet song.  Episodic Memory is autobiographical events, typically divided into when/where it occurred and what it means to each person.  For example, what you ate for supper last night, or the birth of your first child.

Implicit Memory: This is not conscious memory, is not attached to any specific time or place, and is typically a skill or a procedure.  For example the old phrase “you never forget how to ride a bike” is how you can get on a bike, even after not riding for years, and still be able to ride (maybe not well).forget

How to Improve Memory

This can be a useful section for you to know while studying for the EPPP or any other exam.

  • Study Strategies: This is about timing.  Distributed practice (spaced out) is more effective than massed practice (cramming), and rehearsal and regularly spaced intervals (so a little every day) keeps information from being forgotten.
  • Mnemonics: There are a few different ways to use mnemonics. The Method of Loci involves forming a visual image for each item on a list, and then places them in order as one visually walks through a familiar space.  For example, if trying to remember a grocery list, you would visualize each object in a different place in your house as you walk to your room.  Such as milk on the front door, coffee on the kitchen table, eggs on the stairs, and bread on your bed. Word Association involves taking the first letter of each word and memorizing it in a new word or sentence.  For example SMART goals stands for  specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic and time-limited. Substitute Word Technique would involve breaking larger words down into smaller parts, or creating a visual image for each of these words.  For example if you were learning Portuguese and wanted to remember Comer (eat) you could break is down to Come Here for dinner.
  • Chunking: Combining separate items into meaningful pairings, for example breaking up a grocery list by isle, which would help you remember you needed beef and chicken in the meat isle and milk and yogurt in the dairy isle.
  • Imagery and Association: Attaching an image to a word can help to remember.  For example a waiter who wanted to remember what everyone ordered in a party may picture each persons dish being dumped on their head.
  • Recreation of Context: When trying to recall something, remembering other information associated with it.  For example if I wanted to remember what the hippocampus does I could review other portions of the limbic system such as the amygdala and the thalamus to help me remember.


EbbinghausHermann Ebbinghaus was a pioneer in the field of studying memory and forgetting, and developed the forgetting curve, spacing effect theories, and the serial position effect (which shows that we are more likely to remember information at the front and end of a list and forget those in the middle). There are a variety of factors involved in forgetting:

Decay: Over time memory fades, but this has been difficult to study and control other variables that may impact forgetting.

Retrieval Failure: When long term memories can not be retrieved, such as when you feel that something is “on the tip of my tongue” but you can’t quite remember it.

Interference: Other material interferes with retrieving or learning new information. Retroactive Interference when new information interferes with recalling old information (such as when studying for a big exam like the EPPP and every time you learn something new you seem to have a hard time remembering information you learned 2 weeks ago). Proactive Interference when previous information interferes with learning new material (such as when you are studying for the EPPP and you studied learning theory 2 weeks ago and now are having difficulty learning social psychology theory).

Mood Congruent Memory: It is easier to remember information if when recalling it you are in the same state as when you learned it.  So if you have test anxiety it may be difficult for you to recall information in an anxious state you learned in a relaxed state.

Motivated Forgetting: Is the concept of repressed memories and involves the unconscious blocking painful memories.

Amnesia: There are multiple types of amnesia:

  • Anterograde Amnsesia: Impairment if forming new memories, typically after a brain injury.
  • Retrograde Amnesia: Loss of memories of an event that occurred before a brain injury.
  • Posttraumatic Amnesia: Loss of memory for a short time after a trauma.
  • Paramnesia: Distortion of memories and often involves fabricating memories in an attempt to reconstruct the past.

***Often we use these techniques for enhancing memory and don’t even know it, anything you use to help you study or remember information?  Anything you will do differently after reading this section?  Please share in the comments below.

You may find the information on this site is not enough to help you feel confident about your ability to pass the exam, That is OK and only you can be the judge of what you need. If this information seems overwhelming to you it does NOT mean you will fail the exam, but you may require a little more in depth material than is offered here. That is why there is a Product Reviews page which will give you a variety of additional options, as well as practice exam questions which I highly recommend as explained on the Study Tips page.

2 thoughts on “Psychology and Memory

  1. Hey Joy,

    Just wow, this is such a detailed post you have here about memory and the psychology behind it. I’ve never really though about this subject until I read your post and I can tell you put so much effort into explaining everything. I found it particularly interesting that we have so many type of amnesias and now I know more about memory, I can understand how amnesia took place.

    Thanks for sharing!


    1. Yes it’s amazing how in depth the topic of memory can be, something we often think is a single concept has many sub categories. And yes there are many forms of amnesia which can vary depending on where the brain damage occurred, which also verifies that memory is located in many different areas of the brain. I really like this topic, and when I was studying for the EPPP it helped me to keep in mind how I learn and memorize information, I should probably add it to the study tips page.

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