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.


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.
  • 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 your 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.
How Do Our Brains Change With Age, And What Is Normal?
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.
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 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).
  • Ingredients that boost memory and cognitive performance include Ginkgo Biloba, Panax Ginseng, Phosphatidylserine and Vinpocetine.
  • Curcumin, derived from turmeric root, provides anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to boost memory.
  • Probiotic supplements support digestive health by introducing helpful bacteria into the gut. Did you know the gut and brain are connected?
 Check out the most complete line of brain health supplements at


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