Most people are aware that the brain is a very complex structure. However, few stop to think about the complexity and intricacy of the human memory. If we stop to consider the varied nature of the information the memory must capture, the true nature of the mind’s ability to store data emerges.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Memory’ labels a diverse set of cognitive capacities by which we retain information and reconstruct past experiences, usually for present purposes.”

For practical purposes, memory can be categorized into three sections: sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory.

Sensory memory acts as a receptor and buffer for incoming information. Sights, smells, sounds and other data of this sort is processed in sensory memory, then routed to other areas if the brain deems it necessary. One thing that sets sensory memory apart from the other two categories is that it has a fairly large capacity, but does not necessarily interpret any of the data. When sensory information is processed by the brain, that action is called “perception.” After the information is received, sensory memory encodes the information for transmittal to the short-term memory.

Short-term memory, also known as working memory, is the mind’s workspace for daily interactions and processes. When you look up a phone number in a directory and recall that number a few seconds later, it is the short-term memory that holds the information. The capacity of short-term memory is very limited, especially when compared with sensory memory. Unless information in short-term memory is further processed and encoded, the data will be lost in a matter of seconds. However, short-term memory performs other functions other than data recall. It also allows us to be aware of our thoughts, feelings, and general cognitive processes. This awareness is also called “consciousness.”

Long-term memory is the final and most complex level of memory. Information that has been encoded and processed to the highest level is the data that a person can retrieve from this stage. Long-term memory has a very large capacity, much higher than that of short-term memory. In fact, some scientists consider it’s capacity to be unlimited. If you compare that amount of data storage ability with what is currently available in the world of technology, the result is mind-boggling. Long-term memory stores a lifetime’s-worth of memories, incidents and even perceptions and feelings. This information gives human beings a framework in which they interpret information for the rest of their lives.

Long-term memory has two distinct functions: Semantic memory and procedural memory. Semantic memory is the function that most people think about when they consider the concept of memory. It includes such abilities as storing general facts, problem-solving skills and concepts. So, all the theories and data from your college physics class would be stored in semantic memory.

The second function of the long-term memory is to store procedural information (Procedural memory). The title “Procedural memory” is directly indicative of the role that this function performs. This kind of memory is a kind of “how-to” manual for the mind. When a person learns to ride a bicycle or perform a task with sequential steps, procedural memory encodes the order and content of the data as a series of steps, each of which trigger the next step in the process.

By combining the procedural and semantic functions, the long-term memory serves as a powerful reference tool that continues to astound researchers and scientists with its ability and complexity.

The memory is truly one of the most amazing functions of the human mind. No other aspect of the mind has such a marked effect on learning and cognitive development. Lifelong learning, social and cognitive processes all depend on the memory and the many functions that it performs.

photo by Richard0