Psychology Series Part III: The Human Brain’s File Cabinet

What is our brain’s file cabinet? Let me give you some background on it. It consists of short-term and long-term files, sometimes files are lost forever. Not all files make it into the cabinet either. The ones that do make it in make it past two rigorous tests, they’re the best of the best. They define who you are, what you do, and why you do it. So what is the brain’s file cabinet? Your memory.

In this installment of the Psychology Series I’ll be answering three questions: How does our memory work? Why do we forget? What can we do to improve our memory?

How does our memory work?

To answer this question we must first look at the three types of memory we will discuss. First is sensory memory, every memory we’ve every had and every will have passes through here first. Second is short-term memory. The memories here consist of what’s happening in the present, such as the last sentence in this post. Third is long-term memory, which stores everything we know how to do and the things of our past that make us who we are today.

We create memories through a process that utilizes all three of these different memories. All memories start as a stimulus, entering through our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, or through touch. This is where the sensory memory comes in. It filters through all the stimuli we experience throughout the day, sorting significant from insignificant. Significant stimuli pass on to the short-term memory.

In the short-term memory the stimulus is processed and turned into something the brain can recognize, like a word. Short-term memories are things we are aware of in the present, such as the sounds and sights around you. Because of this, short-term memories are only around for about 20 seconds before our brain puts them to the trial again. If the memory is deemed worthwhile by our brains, it is passed on to the final destination: long-term memory.

Long-term memory

Long-term memory (LTM)  is able to hold an infinite amount of memories. We hold procedural, episodic, and semantic memories in LTM. Procedural memories are implicit, we subconsciously use them all the time. They are memories of the things we do all the time: driving, showering, and how to walk. We don’t think about how to do these things, we just do them.

Episodic and semantic memories are a little bit different. Episodic memories are the experiences we’ve gone through that make us who we are today. They are memories of events and experiences, such as going to an amusement park or your wedding.

Semantic memories are facts we know. Things like who the president is, your home address, and who invented electricity (Thomas Edison!) are semantic memories. The reason episodic and semantic memories are different from procedural memories is because they are explicit. This means that we have to consciously try to remember them.

Long-Term Memory Organization

Why do all these different types of long-term memory matter? Because the human brain organizes our long-term memories into three categories: procedural, episodic, and semantic.

Our brains don’t just have memories flying around in our heads, they’re organized. They are actually even more organized inside the three categories: words are grouped with other words that fall under the same category. For example, apples and peaches are put into the fruit category. 134 and 1 are in the number category. This helps us recall certain things and also explains why sometimes when we think of one thing we also think of another, similar thing.

Why do we forget?

There are a few reasons as to why we forget things. One of the main ones is that it’s good for us to forget things. If we remembered every hardship we’ve ever faced, or every time we felt pain, we would be an awfully sad species, but we are being looked after. Forgetting the sad things helps us move on from them.

A second reason is that if we didn’t forget things our brains would be overloaded. We would have an exceptionally hard time recalling what we actually want to.

Theories for how we forget

There are a lot of theories for how we forget. I’ll go over two here: the Replacement Theory and the Decay Theory.

  1. The Replacement Theory states that new information we learn replaces old information. A study done on two groups of people proved this theory. Both groups were shown the same picture of a car accident. One group was asked questions about the picture that gave the impression there was a yield sign (there wasn’t a yield sign but a stop sign) in the picture. The second group was asked no questions. When the first group was told that they had actually been messed with, they insisted they had actually seen the yield sign. The conclusion was that the “new” memory had replaced the old memory of the actual picture.
  2. The Decay Theory says that memories will disappear if they are not retrieved every so often from LTM. While it is one of the more accepted theories, there is very little to back the Decay Theory up because it is almost impossible to test. But it seems very reasonable. The theory also says that procedural memories are not affected, but explicit memories are.

What can we do to improve our memory?

This is perhaps one of the most popular questions of all time, and I’m about to tell you the answer to it! There are a lot of ways to improve your memory, many of which I have written a post on!

  1. Laugh! This is my FAVORITE way to improve memory, because you feel like the happiest person in the world when you laugh! Laughing also engages different parts of your brain and helps you think more broadly.
  2. Exercise! Physical exercise is a great way to improve your memory! It actually helps your brain more than doing crossword puzzles.
  3. Sleep! Sleeping is when your brain reenergize and repairs all of your bodies cells. Adults need from 7.5-9 hours of sleep a night. So start sleeping!

I go in depth on all three of these in the links above.

So now you know how your memory works, why you forget, and how you can improve your memory! Thanks for reading! Remember to come back to and read some other articles!

My reference for all the facts in this article was Kendra Cherry’s Essentials of Psychology. 

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