How Does Your Memory Work?

Your memory is a fascinating thing. But how does it work? Even now, the human brain remains largely mysterious to the scientific community. But what we do understand is that our memory isn’t just one function. There are many types of memory, and to understand how it fits together, we have to look at each individual part. Scroll down to learn about your memory: how it moves through different phases and how it changes as you age. Also, in this article you can discover answers to common questions about your memory function.


Article At-A-Glance

  • Sensory memory is thought of as the first stage of memory. It is your ability to retain data from your senses.
  • Short-term memory, sometimes called active memory, is the information available to you in your conscious thoughts.
  • Long-term memory is your storage bank of information not in your conscious thoughts. This info may be minutes, hours, days or even years old.
  • Although there is likely a limit to human memory, our brains are thought to hold more data than we can ever put inside it during our lives.
  • Our brains change constantly as we age. Changes in memory are normal. Some aspects of memory stay the same, some get worse, and some actually get better.
  • There are multiple ways you can practically boost your memory.
  • Maintaining strong social networks will be key to protecting your memory/cognitive function.
  • Sticking to some kind of an exercise routine is of great benefit as you age.
  • Many ‘brain health’ foods can help boost your memory.
  • Quality sleep is a major factor in memory function.
  • Because memory is affected by so many bodily functions, there are many supplements that could contribute to your ability to stay sharp.
  • Beyond these major categories, there are simple tricks you can employ to help you stay on top of your to-do’s.

A Human Memory Model

Scientists and brain health experts vary in terms of how they explain memory. This is one of the most common memory models, and it’s relatively easy to understand.


Sensory Memory

Your Sensory memory doesn’t last very long; in fact, it’s over in a few milliseconds. It’s basically you’re ability to retain immediate information from your five senses. An example of sensory memory would be your ability to remember what you see after looking at something momentarily. Sensory memory is thought of as the first stage of memory, and it absorbs a massive amount of stimuli from the environment, although only for a fraction of a second.


Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory, sometimes called active memory, is the information that a person is conscious of in the present moment. Data from the five senses can be stored in short-term memory, such as sounds or external events. Short-term memory is primarily a function of the prefrontal cortex. It is thought to last between 15-30 seconds and to contain around 7 pieces of information. Short-term memory is by its nature very fragile and easily disrupted by distraction or the passing of time. One useful way to understand short-term memory is to think of it as the brain’s ‘scratch-pad’ or ‘post-it note.’ It serves as a temporary data bank that your brain uses to process. As you read this sentence, for example, your short-term memory retains the words at the beginning to make sense of the end. That is short-term memory in action.

Long-Term Memory 

Long-term memory refers to your brain’s ability to store information over an extended period of time. This can be data that’s more than a few minutes old, or something that happened hours, days or even years ago. Brain experts in the science and medical field have created subcategories of long-term memory that you have heard of such as semantic, procedural or episodic memory.

Unlike short-term memory, information in long-term memory is often outside our conscious thoughts. However, it can be recalled into working memory when it’s needed. Some memories, however, are much more difficult than others to retrieve.

In general, the more important a memory, the easier it is to recall. The momentous occasions in your life are readily available, while the minutia of past experience may require more prompting. For instance, a song or picture may vividly bring back memories that were otherwise impossible to access.

Although we may struggle with forgetfulness, our long-term memory actually remains largely intact, decaying very little over time. There is even debate over whether or not we ever truly forget anything: some believe that pieces of information just become increasingly harder to access as time goes forward.

Is Human Memory Limited or Unlimited?

According to an article in Scientific American, the storage capacity of the human brain is absolutely massive, and you don’t have to worry about “running out” of memory any time soon. Even though there must be a limit at some point to what we can remember, we aren’t likely to reach that point in our lifetime--or even three lifetimes.

According to Paul Reber, professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, the human brain contains about one billion neurons, which work together to hold around 1 million gigabytes of information. To gain perspective, Dr. Reber says this about the brain’s storage capacity:

If your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, (1 million gigabytes) would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for more than 300 years to use up all that storage.

That’s a lot, but it’s only an estimation. Dr. Reber says that it’s actually impossible to know definitively how much memory the brain can hold. Part of the issue, he says, is that it’s currently impossible to measure the size of a memory. What we do know is that the human memory is well equipped to hold as many memories as needed.

How Do Our Brains Change With Age, And What Is Normal?

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Your brain is in a constant state of change, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You may be surprised to know that the physical structure of our brain changes over time, and so does our memory. In general, some aspects of memory stay the same as we age; some decline, and some actually get better. Let’s take a look at some different areas of memory and how they evolve as you get older.

Semantic memory — Semantic memory (category of long term memory) refers to your ability to recall abstract concepts and facts. An example would be understanding the functional difference between a toothbrush and a hair comb.  Semantic memory actually continues to get better over time for many adults.

Procedural Memory — Your procedural memory (category of long term memory) is your ability to remember how something is done. An example would be how to drive a stick shift or ride a bicycle. Your procedural memory actually tends to remain the same for most adults.

Episodic Memory — Episodic memory (category of long term memory) has to do with remembering details of your schedule, what you were supposed to do, etc. Your episodic memory has to do with the ‘what,’ ‘when,’ and ‘where’ of life. This type of memory may decline somewhat as you age.

There are other types of brain function that may decrease as a normal part of aging. These may include processing speed when learning something new.  Another mental function that becomes more difficult as we get older is multi-tasking and being able to focus on two things at once. These areas of memory are typically considered short term memory. Finally, longer-term memory also may decline as we age.

6 Major Ways You Can Boost Your Memory 

If you’ve ever wondered if there’s anything you can do to boost your memory, then you’re in luck! There are many practical steps you can take to improve your ability to remember. Many of them are lifestyle elements: the foods you eat, how active you are, etc. However, there are also simple tricks and tactics you can employ to optimize your cognitive function. Scroll down to discover the ways you can help keep your memory sharp and well-maintained over the long term.

Get Out And Be Social


One of the best things you can do for your overall cognitive function is to maintain strong relationships and social networks. When it comes to your memory function, this is no exception. Engaging in social gatherings and community activities can not only boost mood and positive neurochemicals, it can also jump start your memory.


Some Practical Steps 

Create rituals with others. You could pick a certain day every week to do something with others: go out to eat, watch a movie, etc.
The internet has made it possible to find groups with virtually every interest. Peruse social media and community sites like to find events near you where you can connect with others.
Take a class, whether it be something intellectual or active like a dance class or tai chi. The more interactive it is, the better.
Become a connector. Many people are looking for social connection as well. Sometimes the easiest way to make friends is to suggest ideas for activities and invite others out.


Physical Fitness


Exercise is across the board one of the best things you can do for your body, but it’s also a key element to maintaining a well-functioning brain.  Exercise affects the brain in many ways. It increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain. It aids the release of hormones which provide an excellent environment for the growth of brain cells. Exercise also stimulates the growth of new connections between cells in many important cortical areas of the brain. It is also thought to boost cognition. One study reported that exercise helps the brain release a molecule called irisin, which can activate genes associated with learning and memory.

Gyms can often double as community centers. Organizations like the YMCA have sports and activities geared toward every age group and fitness level. Check your local Y for many more ideas.
Plant a garden or mow the grass.
Walk the dog.
If you have a bike, consider riding a bike short distances instead of driving.
If you like to take walks, invite a neighbor to be your walking buddy.
Check out these articles for information about how exercise can positively impact the brain. You’ll also find ideas for how you can choose the best exercises for brain health.


Adjust Your Diet 


We all know that diet plays a huge role in health, but what exactly is a good diet for brain function, and specifically your memory? In general, a low-glycemic diet is your best bet. If possible, lowering your intake of refined sugar and grains will help support your memory by reducing inflammation. Insulin resistance and inflammation can both be precursors to brain health problems. Another helpful guideline is to consume foods high in antioxidants, probiotics, and Omega-3’s. Antioxidants help protect the brain against harmful free radicals. Probiotics provide healthy bacteria in the digestive tract to boost immune function, and in turn cognitive function. Finally, Omega-3’s are used by the body to create brain and nerve cells, and they are essential to learning and memory. Here are some practical examples of ‘memory-boosting’ foods.

Foods like Yogurt, Kombucha, Pickles, Kefir, Sauerkraut, or fermented foods in general contain high amounts of probiotics.
Pecans, strawberries, blueberries, spinach, walnuts, and apples all contain antioxidants.
Eggs, Salmon, Spinach, Chia Seeds, and Canola Oil all contain Omega-3 fatty acids.
Check out this article for more memory-boosting foods.


Get Some Sleep


Sleep is one of the most important, and overlooked aspects of our brain health. The time you spend sleeping is the period that your body repairs itself, and getting good sleep is critical to your cognitive function. It’s probably little surprise to learn that sleep quality is very much linked to memory. British newspaper The Guardian cited a study that concluded that good sleep almost doubles our odds of recalling forgotten information. According to Dr. Nicolas Dunmay, who was interviewed for the article, the study “may indicate that some memories are sharpened overnight. This supports the notion that, while asleep, we actively rehearse information flagged as important.” Although we all know from experience how lack of sleep can affect our mind, many U.S. citizens still struggle getting a good night’s rest. Here are a few tips for how to sleep deeper and wake up more refreshed:

Pick a consistent time to go to bed and wake up, and stick to it.
Keep your room dark at night. If necessary, get some black-out curtains or unplug electronic devices that give off excessive light.
Avoid looking at your electronic screens (i.e. phone) for at least an hour before bed. Screens can give off blue light, which can trick the brain into believing that it’s still daylight.
Get a quality sleep supplement, one that contains relaxing and sedating herbs. Two other key supplements are melatonin and 5-htp. You can check out Procera Sleep, which contains all of these combined into one capsule.
What you eat and when you eat can have a huge impact on your ability to rest. As an experiment, you may try eating a healthy dinner and not eating after 7pm. You may find that you rest better without late-night snacking.
For more sleep tips, check out this article.



Because so many different factors can affect your memory function, there are several different types of supplements that can be of help. Foundational vitamins and minerals can help provide the essential fuel your brain needs to run efficiently. Other supplements specifically geared toward the brain can help optimize your cognitive function and boost your overall memory. Here is a starter list of supplements for your memory:

Foundational supplements include: Vitamins B and D, and Omega-3 (EPA and DHA).
Certain supplements may boost memory and cognitive performance. These include: Ginkgo Biloba, Panax Ginseng, and Vinpocetine.
Curcumin, derived from turmeric root, may provide anti-inflammatory properties. To learn more about curcumin, click here.
Probiotic supplements (with prebiotics) support digestive health by introducing helpful bacteria into the gut. These are widely available and beneficial if you do not have a diet high in fermented foods.


A Few Extra Tips and Tricks

There are several little things you can do to make it easier overall to remember. These simple tricks can help you stay on top of your routine and get everything done that you need to.

Word Associations— Use word associations to help you recall things. For example, if someone tells you their name is Mr. Applegate, picture an apple sitting on a gate. Simple strategies like this are called mnemonic devices. A mnemonic device is mental exercise designed to help you remember.
Write Out Your To-Do’s — This is good for everyone, even if you have a great memory. Keeping a to-do list will ease the burden off of your mind to remember everything.
Keep Your Routine Going — Having a structured routine can create associations in the mind that will help you remember. Having designated times for your activities will make it much easier to get everything done in a day.
Get a Calendar/Day Planner — Physically writing something down can by itself help you remember what to do. Keeping a calendar with your schedule in advance will be of major benefit to your memory.


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