• Question: What controls how good someone's memory is? And why is some people's memory better than others?

    Asked by spacenut to Faye, Martin, Mus, Pete, Kate, Mark U, Tess, Yue on 27 Apr 2012. This question was also asked by cheese2000.
    • Photo: Pete Etchells

      Pete Etchells answered on 27 Apr 2012:

      That’s a really tough question, spacenut! Human memory is a hugely complex thing, and we’re still learning lots about it (there’s a number of people in my department who spend all of their time research memory!). Basically, there are three parts to memory, and some people can be better than others at different bits:

      1) The first step is encoding a memory. This basically means that your brain has received some information (like a picture, say), and is processing it.
      2) Next is storage. Your brain needs to create a permanent record of the information that it’s been given.
      3) The last bit is retrieval. At some point, you might want to remember what that picture was of, so you have to find the record of it in your brain and process it.

      So, you can be really good at storing information, but not very good at retrieving later on (I was like this during exams). Alternatively, you might be bad a storing information, but what you do manage to store you can quite easily retrieve later on (actually, maybe my revision was like that…). In both cases, you’d think of yourself as having a ‘bad’ memory.

      There are lots of brain areas involved in memory, including the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. So obviously, if you have damage in these areas, your memory will be affected. But generally, some people might have better memory than others, because they’ve developed really effective ways of helping the brain at each of those three stages I mentioned before. For instance, you might have an easy-to-understand way of presenting yourself with information (like notes, instead of big essays of text), which will help your brain process it all. Some people think that repeating information helps your brain to store it more easily, as you’re reinforcing those records that have already been created. When it comes to retrieval, some people find that going to the place where you initially remembered the information will help you to bring it back (so ideally, it’s best to revise in the place where you’re going to have the exam!).

      That’s a really simple overview of memory, but I hope it gives you an idea of the processes involved!