Understanding and Improving Memory (Part 1 of 4)

Understanding and Improving Memory (Part 1 of 4)

Understanding and Improving Memory (Part 1 of 4)


I think that many of us can relate to having a really intense dream… and you are in it, you know what I mean? Like, your heart is racing, and you know that next thing is right around the corner, and the big moment is about to happen… and you are angry. Like, angrier than ever and you are really letting them have it, like, you’re shaking your finger and maybe you’ve got your hand on your hip and BEEP BEEP BEEP!!! Your alarm wakes you up.

And in an instant, (SNAP!) you are brought back into reality. And in this reality, your person is there. And they are completely innocent. But you’ve already had this huge fight with them in your dream. And it’s nothing that the other person actually did in real life, but you still have that false memory imprinted onto your brain. It’s not true, but you still have that experience in your heart. Your nervous system is still upset. Your blood pressure is up. You’re probably sweating. Have you experienced something like that before?

Often, our memories drive a narrative to which we are emotionally attached. Sometimes, these emotional attachments can hold us back.

When stressed, we have a tendency to lock into the way we feel and our memory becomes supportive of that stress. The more we reinforce the memory, the deeper the memories are imprinted into our neuropathways. I’ll talk more about that process in part 3 of this blog post series when I write about how long-term memories are stored.

With lots of help from highly-trained professionals, I’ve learned ways to navigate stressful triggers by processing memories better and releasing emotional attachments that are holding me back.

I’ve learned how to change the narrative driving my emotions, by learning when my memory is reliable, when it isn’t, and how it serves me, regardless of its accuracy.

Today, I want to share stuff I’ve learned along the way of improving brain performance. As always, please apply what you can use and throw away the rest if it doesn’t apply to you. I’m not a doctor or neurologist or therapist. But I do have first-hand experience overcoming trauma. I won’t be talking about any of that here, however (memoir soon to follow).

I’ve come to realize that the stories I tell myself and others can either be the chains that hold me prisoner or the keys that release me from the trauma I aim to overcome.

I like to encourage people to take notes to engage as many senses as possible when learning something new because it will help you remember it better. So my first tip is that taking notes while reading something new will help imprint information into your memory.

Our memories hold the key to:

  • Better communication
  • Cultivating more emotional intelligence
  • being open to the viewpoints of others, and
  • For setting healthy boundaries

So you can see how a person like me as a Brand Strategy Consultant, who is always looking to connect meaningful messaging with brands so they reach their optimum clients, you can see how understanding the process by which we encode, store, and retrieve memories would be helpful when I am creating marketing funnels with emotional triggers.

What is memory? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that memory is:

1. the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information.

2. something remembered from the past; a recollection.

Memory is the process we use to encode, store, and retrieve data from stimuli, both internal and external. This affects our cognition (that’s how we think about things) and our behavior (that’s our observable responses).

Our brains are always monitoring our environment, both internal and external. Our brains work hard to regulate digestion, breathing, heartbeat, blood sugar levels, all while processing any new information that we take in.

These days what we know is that what we call “memory” is really an interconnected group of regions in our brain that are related to specific memory subsystems. These multiple memory systems are constantly processing data and they are able to function together or independently of each other.

Memories are Weird

Memories can be compressed. Our brain has this quality that when the day is the same over and over again, without a stimulus change, our brain will compress the time for efficiency. So you know how you keep saying things like “6 months ago” but it’s actually been a year and 6 months? The year 2020 just flew by because we compress time when the days are repetitive.

It is our emotions that control the narrative we attach to a memory.

And while we can’t give our brains more processing power, as we can do for our computers, we can look for unconscious bias and inefficient processes to improve our brain’s performance.

In this blog post, I am going to help you understand the ways in which our memories might fail us and ways to improve how our brains process data.

I’m not saying you can forget or erase away or even completely heal from traumatic memories, but using these techniques helped me and I hope they help you if the technique is appropriate to try for your situation.

If you could focus on improving one technique for 3 months and then for the next 3 months focus on improving another technique, you will very likely improve your brain performance.

In this blog post series I will cover:

1. The types of memory systems

2. Biological storage

3. Improving daily performance

4. Confidence – As an example: a small thing like improving your memory of people’s names would help you appear more confident and attentive to details. You want others to observe you appearing more confident. It’s an attractive quality in a mate or as a job candidate

5. Emotional Intelligence is “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”* Improving factors that will influence your emotional intelligence, improves brain performance.

6. Conflict is inevitable. We can use memories to set healthy boundaries with people who are not open to respecting our boundaries. I think there are numerous ways to deal with a confrontation or conflict. There is one extreme and then there is the other extreme, then there is an enormous gray area in the middle. I try to wobble around the middle. Considering as many options as possible will be helpful when choosing how to respond to a situation. If you find yourself in your work encountering a lot of conflict due to mental health issues, you may want to get training to better understand mental health. As an example you might consider for yourself, I have a certification in Mental Health First Aid for Youth, which helps to know how to respond in case of a young person who may be having a mental health episode.


There are actual people out there who consider this memory stuff a sport. This guy, Ron White, considers himself A Brain Athlete. He looks at memory as if it’s a sport. Ron teaches people how to memorize poems and speeches and foreign languages and care for their brains in a healthy way. He says he’s no different than anyone else, he’s just learned techniques to care for his brain better. Another expert, Harry Lorayne, has written over 50 books about memory.

His books have helped veterans overcome PTSD, helped build sales processes, helped patients recovering from a stroke, and helped politicians succeed in their campaigns.

Bahrick (in 1894) and Ebbinghaus (multiple) both conducted research showing that most forgetting occurs early. Most of our memories form at around 3-4 years old. That’s when we start developing our memory systems.

The following is a general overview of our Types of Memory Systems.

We have declarative and non-declarative systems. Additionally, there are memory subsystems that may work together or independently of each other. We have one memory subsystem for short-term memory, for on-the-spot math. We use a different memory subsystem for memorizing long-term algebraic formulas. In fact, memory consolidation is a process that helps us improve our long-term memories by strengthening the synaptic connections between neurons structurally and chemically and at different time intervals.

Declarative memory is your conscious memory, involving effort and intention. We can use intentional techniques like mnemonics and repetition to help us process information. Biologically, the hippocampus and frontal lobes manage our declarative memory. Our declarative memory system can be measured with explicit memory tests like coding tests and other aptitude tests.

These are the three declarative memory subsystems:

  • Working Memory – is about 2-18 seconds long and is used for doing math in your head, and any kind of immediate mental calculations like dialing a phone number. It’s a temporary processing place where old information collides with new information. Biologically, our ability to take in that new information is determined by the neurotransmitter, vasopressin.
  • Episodic Memory – this is our long-term memory system, where specific life events are stored like your wedding day or other special life events
  • Semantic Memory – this is our long-term memory system where general knowledge is stored such as facts, 2+2=4, and the capitol of Nevada is Carson City. That’s a factual account of an incident. Remember, however, that our memory drives a narrative that we are attached to. It’s one thing if I walk across the room with a red ball and toss it to the back of the room. “Did I see the ball? Was it red?” That’s a factual account. It is a declared fact. It doesn’t tell a dramatic story positioning me as the hero or the victim in the story, such as “I can’t believe Christina just threw that red ball past my head, barely missing me!” That’s what we mean by general knowledge. It lacks a narrative.

Then there is Non-declarative memory. This is Your unconscious memory. Using our non-declarative memory system requires no effort on our part because it is implicit. It is governed by different areas of the brain than the declarative memory system. Biologically, it is the cortical areas of our brain, the cerebellum, and the basal ganglia that govern the non-declarative memory system, which is imperative for forming new memories. We cannot form new memories without the non-declarative memory system. People who suffer from amnesia may have damage in their cerebellum or basal ganglia or cortical areas.

These are the types of non-declarative memory subsystems.

  • Priming – Priming is when different cues or triggers may cause a person to instantly recall a memory without even trying. Smelling a perfume or lotion and it instantly reminds you of your Grandma is an example of priming. Not liking a person because they look like an old boss who was a total jerk is an example of priming our non-declarative memory and those strong emotions drive the narrative. Sometimes a certain smell might put the trauma-informed brain back into the memory of that person’s trauma.
  • Conditioning – an example of this is Pavlov’s dog. Most of us have heard of Pavlov’s dog. In an experiment, he rang a bell every time he fed his dog. Eventually, the dog learned that the sound of the bell would result in food. In anticipation of being fed, the dog would produce more saliva. Finally, all Pavlov needed to do was to ring the bell and the dog would salivate, even when he did not get fed. Humans can condition our brain patterns also, by using techniques like NeuroLinguistic Programming and Hypnosis.
  • Motor/Procedural – is when we learn how to commit a task to memory by physically doing it over and over again through repetitive actions such as dribbling a basketball or practicing our golf swing. Our nervous system will respond to a stimulus based on repetitive physical actions (including traumatic actions).

When these different memory systems are stimulated, they start encoding, storing, and retrieving data together. Sometimes they do not work together. Sometimes a memory system may be isolated and not activated.

For example, let’s say you’re taking a math final. You might be using your semantic memory system to recall the formula itself (that’s where we store long-term, general facts), but you may be missing your working memory system (this is our short-term memory system where old data are processed alongside new data)… it’s not engaged for some reason, maybe you are stressed out and having a panic attack and your brain says “Nah, you can’t have access to that memory system right now” and so you will not be able to quite comprehend how the math formula works. That’s a real thing for people who have panic attacks, or people experiencing the long-term effects of mental fatigue of COVID19 working conditions.

But…. brains lie. And the more rigid our beliefs are, and the more distracted we are, the more our brains will lie.

Why do our memories deceive us? Well, there are lots of ways that our memories can deceive us during encoding, storing, and retrieving data. We are forgetful, we remember false memories, we trust our ears, but not our eyes…

So, for example, if you are struggling with connecting with others… if you are struggling with feeling like you are not connected to others (and for many people, this is a reality). I’m not talking about “OMG, I’m so bored to be quarantined because of COVID lockdown”). I’m talking about someone who seriously feels unseen and outcast by the world and is not able to, for whatever reason, cultivate the skills to connect with others. Maybe this person starts feeling depressed and alone. Maybe they get stuck in a victim mindset, then maybe when thinking back in history from a victim mindset, their mind begins to fill in any memory gaps with information that upholds this person in the role of the victim. Thus creating false memories out of the original memories.  Our brains are capable of this. Over and over studies show that we are capable of isolating memory systems to work independently of each other and recreate memories under false pretense. In cases of extreme trauma, your brain might even dissociate from the memories altogether.


Sometimes how we remember things depends on the value we assign to something. What do you value? Where is your focus? How many of you have done this on a mild scale? For example, you go and see a movie with a friend, Jane, and three months later you’re telling Jane about this movie you enjoyed, but you thought you went with your friend Bob and not your friend Jane. Well, that’s because it was the movie that was what was important to you at the time and you used deductive reasoning to fill in the spot and assigned whatever friend to fill in the spot.


Another issue with memories is that they can be interrupted. Interrupting someone while they are processing their thoughts will force the person to adapt their senses as they shift their attention toward the interruption. Interruptions are a primary source of forgetting. Interference blocks or disrupts the flow of data. Context-switching is an interruption of the flow of data. Although, the change has to be significant to affect memory. One communication tool I use is to hold up one finger??: “Just a minute. Let me finish this thought…” or email, or text message or whatever it is, so I don’t lose the thought.

Retroactive interference: this type of interruption happens when you are trying to remember someone’s maiden name and all you can remember is their current, married name. That is an example of retroactive interference. You are trying to retrieve retroactive data but the current data –the married name– is all you can remember. In the pilot opening scene of Ted Lasso, the new owner is recently divorced and no one can remember the maiden name – “Excuse me, Ms. Welton” is an example of retroactive interference trying to remember her maiden name and he can’t because all he can do is remember her married name.

Proactive interference is the opposite: this type of interruption happens when you are trying to recall a new memory but the old memory interrupts you. For example. I used to live on the Northwest Corner of Las Vegas for many years. And when I moved, I still found myself occasionally heading that way at the end of my day, even though I no longer live waaaay up there anymore. That’s an example of proactive interference.  There’s another scene in the pilot of Ted Lasso where Ted says, “It’s called the Tower Bridge, not the London Bridge. ‘Cause this one’s still up.” That’s an example of proactive interference – trying to remember the new name is Tower Bridge but the old name is interfering with his memory.

What you see is not always what you get when it comes to memory.

Eyewitness accounts are not the best evidence. Over and over again it has been proven and replicated in laboratories around the world that we can’t always trust our memories.

Brains lie.

So how can we improve our memory? It’s possible.

We can improve our memory.

We can improve our capacity for learning.

We can improve our ability to encode, store, and retrieve data thanks to neuroplasticity.

In the last 7-8 years, we have only begun to understand the plasticity of the brain. There has been research ever since Daniel Goleman’s book, which came out in 1995. Goleman indicated that Emotional Intelligence accounted for 67% of the abilities deemed necessary for superior performance in leaders, and mattered twice as much as technical expertise or IQ. Do you know what that means? It means It doesn’t matter what stage of your life or career that you are at because everything we used to believe about the rigidity of the human brain is historically incorrect.

New research is coming out all the time.

We used to think the brain was much more limited.  What we know now is that our nervous system has neuroplasticity. As we stimulate new parts of our brain over and over again, these neurotransmitters are inhibited or prohibited from sending signals and bringing in our different senses…. and bringing in different memories from past experiences… and stimulating our belief system associated with those memories… which brings in stimuli from our environment and people associated with those memories…

When we stimulate that neuropathway, we strengthen the pathway either by lots of activity with multiple stimuli or with repetitive stimuli…. essentially, making a stronger connection. So in this way, we can create new neuropathways to the brain. If you’ve heard me speak before, you’ve probably heard me say, “If the stimulus is strong enough or repetitive enough, it will strengthen the neuropathway. That’s neuroplasticity in action. It makes sense, then, that reading a book doesn’t mean you have suddenly learned ALL about emotional intelligence. It is with constant practice that your mindset changes over time, and as you grow and shift, your community around you responds.

When I was a mini-Christina, crawling around on my grandma’s floor, I found a metal hairpin, picked it up, and stuck it into a 110-volt light socket. How many times do you think I stimulated that neuropathway? I didn’t need to do it again because the stimulus was strong enough that I remembered never to do it again.

Neuroplasticity exists for forgetting memories, too. As my French teacher used to say, “If you don’t use it, you lose it!” That’s probably the reason why these days, the only French I speak is to ask if you are a tie in French. “Es que tu un cravat?”

If you are not stimulating those neuropathways, then those memories will disappear. This improves our brain’s performance.

In fact, babies’ brains have hundreds of millions more neural connections than adults. What we don’t use, we lose. We keep the connections that are useful to us. We prune the neuropathways that we don’t need. Our brains are always trying to be more efficient. So we get crevices and valleys in our brain matter. Babies’ brains have grey matter that is smooth.

The last thing I want to mention in this blog post real quickly is this…let’s talk about how we process memories. We process some memories with superficial (or shallow) processing. Shallow processing examines the physical features of an object instead of the meaning behind it. Some thoughts require deeper (elaborate) processing for memories to be stored. Deep processing considers the meaningfulness and purpose behind something. Elaborate connections, associations, and chunking with existing knowledge take place during deep processing. This repeated exposure to a stimulus or Deep processing of a stimulus means it has a strong imprint on your memory.

There are lots of ways to encode, store, and retrieve memories. That means extroverts are going to respond well to stimuli that are assertive or face-to-face. Introverts may reject the data altogether if it is experienced too aggressively.

So what ways can you communicate with your team members considering the various ways of processing memories?

All 7.8 billion people on the planet have different responses to stimuli that are going to help us encode, store, and retrieve our memories. And how can we improve the way we process memories?

@dev_nikema posted this information on Twitter. They have some tips for companies looking to engage people with different learning styles. Here are some valuable points of advice for companies to give those voices a chance instead of only rewarding the extroverts or aggressive responders:

  • Front-load the data – Front-load me with information and give me time to process and respond. I’m not an on-the-spot thinker but give me time to be thoughtful and it’s worth the wait
  • Give me reference material
  • Make async collaboration possible. My brain is not always lit up and ready for output
  • Allow me to communicate in text
  • Real-time meetings are a lot to process at once and I’m short on working memory. I’m probably bored and it’s taking everything I have just to stay focused and listen for understanding. This is especially true during COVID times.

Here’s a summary…

  1. Front-load data
  2. Reference materials
  3. Asynchronous Communications
  4. Visual
  5. Auditory
  6. Intuition

Understanding this helps us support everyone, so they can perform better on the job. Not everyone incorporates the same processes to encode, store, or retrieve memories.

In the next parts of this series, we will discuss ways I’ve learned to improve encoding, storing, and retrieving memories better.

If you’d like to learn more about ways to improve your own performance, contact me. To continue this discussion online, use #LuckyMemory.