The Science of Human Memory

Did you know that the only non-human animal with almost the same capacity to retain and process information as humans is the elephant? They have excellent memory, and use their experience to decide on the action to take in the present circumstance and even plan.

So, how does human memory work and what is its role, if any, in learning?

Understanding how the human brain works is a complex undertaking. However, thanks to years of research and studies, we have an idea on the relationship between our mind and ability to learn. This article provides a simplified guide on this relationship.

What is human memory?

The mind has a collection of what we can remember. In humans, it is the ability to recall past experiences; process learned facts, skills, or habits. It is also the store of all the lessons learnt through these experiences.

From the physiological perspective, this is a network of encoded neural connections in the brain. Humans recall information through the firing of the neurons that took part in the original learning experience. Unlike the library or computer chips, this ability is not on a localised section of the brain. It is the result of the synchronous working of a network of elements from different parts of the brain.

Role in learning

Learning and the ability to remember are related but very distinct. Education is the way we acquire information about the world to behave accordingly. It implies three different activities:

  • Creating an impression of an information
  • Storing the information
  • Retrieving the stored data to solve a problem or determine behaviour

None of these aspects of learning would be possible in the absence of the cognitive process of encoding, storing, retaining, and recalling information. It makes learning possible.

The process of the human mind in learning

The human mind is involved in three main operations

  • Encoding
  • Storing
  • Retrieval


The first process in the brain during learning is transforming the gained knowledge into a form that can be stored. Encoding depends on content, environmental, and subjective factors.

Content factors

How the mind encodes a message depends mostly on the information to be encoded. Encoding is more straightforward for short, organised material than extended random details. the information that is at the beginning and end of a learning session is also stored easily than the ones in the middle. Additionally, familiarity also makes it easy to encode the content.

Environmental factors

Factors such as socio-emotional well-being, noise, and weather also play an essential part in the encoding of information. Studies have shown that students who study in a noisy environment remember less than those who read in a quiet environment. However, environmental factors that may inhibit encoding in one person may heighten it in another.

Subjective factors

Subjective factors are internal biases such as motivations, dispositions, and ambitions. They not only determine what is stored in the brain but also how it is stored. In a business discussion, for example, an investor may encode and store easily the information related to profits. Other conditions such as fatigue and illness also impact the encoding process.


Just as the encoding process, it is a highly selective process. Information stored has both the qualitative and the quantitative aspects. The former deal with the fidelity of the information and the latter is about the duration of the storage. Fidelity of the material depends on the factors that affected its encoding. Human ability to retain information falls into three levels.

Sensory level

It is the ability to retain impressions from stimuli received from the five senses. The information stored here has the shortest lifespan. If the impression is deliberately ignored, it disappears almost instantly. Otherwise, it goes into the sensory level storage where it degrades very quickly, taking only 500 milliseconds. Unfortunately, one cannot prolong it by rehearsal. It explains why humans need to sniff a flower continuously to enjoy the scent.

To pass information from the sensory to the short-term level requires attention. It is the deliberate concentration on one aspect of the environment and ignoring everything else.

Short term memory

It is the ability to process, store and retrieve information at the same time. It holds a small amount of data, about 7 to 12 items for less than a minute. Examples include the “carrying over” or “borrowing” of numbers when solving arithmetic problems. It is also evident also in simultaneous translations. The interpreter has to listen, store, process and then reproduce the words in a different language in less than 15 seconds.

Information on this level also quickly decays in the absence of a deliberate effort to retain it. It can be transferred to the long term memory through revision, or by assigning meaning to it.

Long term memory

It is the ability to remember experiences, skills, and habits years after acquiring them. An example is the ability to drive even after years without practice. Researchers have categorised this level into two:

Declarative: It stores information that requires a conscious effort to recall such as past events, names, and experiences.

Procedural: Keeps information about how to do things such as ride horse, drive among others.


Is the process of accessing the information stored in mind. It happens through recognition and recall. Recognition is the ability to associate the present event or object with a stored impression on the brain. Recalling is the complex process of researching the needed information then filtering the correct one out of the several retrieved items.

Forgetting curve

Not everything stored in the brain is always remembered. Fortunately, forgetfulness is a systematic and controllable process. The forgetting curve indicates that the human mind holds onto what it uses often. Repetition is, therefore, an essential tool to combating forgetfulness.

Active learning is the result of consistently revisiting the learnt material. The complexity of the content defines the time interval between revisions. Again, one needs to apply logic and association rather than mechanical repetition. Individualised learning makes it easier to come up with a procedure of ensuring optimum content retention.


The symbiotic relationship between the ability to recall information and learning makes one impossible without the other. Understanding these basics on how the brain processes, stores and retrieves information is vital to coming up with an effective customised learning program.

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