What is memory and how does it work?

Ok, so in my last few blogs I have covered what affects memory and how to boost memory but I have not covered what memory is and how it works. So that is what I will cover in this blog…

What is memory?

Memory is the process by which infromation is encoded, stored and retrieved. Encoding is the process by which information is transferred from the environment into the brain, for eample when you see a picture of an animal you have not seen before and there is a caption telling you what the animal is. This information is being encoded. Storage is the process where information is kept for recall at a later time, so if you were to see the animal without the caption then you will be able to recall what it was called. Retrieval is the actual recall of the infoprmation from short or long term memory.


This is a blobfish.

If you think about all of the worrds you know in all of the different languages you have come into contact with (For me I not only know English fluently but I know words in Welsh, French, Spanish and even a few Polish and Swahili ones too), as well as all of the words we know, we know their meanings, we know directions to places, peoples names and things about them, we know a lot about Psychology (hopefully) and about all of the other subjects we have been taught until out lives now. Memory is a huge store and the amount we can store is constantly being researched and updated. This research by MIT shows just how much the human memory can do http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2008/vision-memory-0908.html.

How does memory work?

Atkinson & Shiffrin (1968) put forward the Multi-store model of memory.

As you can see from the image above the multi-store model contains three stores; sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. Sensory memory is when a stimuli is detected by one of the senses, for example, visually. This stores the information only for enough time to interpret the stimuli. If this stimuli is not attended to then it decays straight away, leaving the sensory memory. If the stimuli is attended to then it will enter the short-term memory store. In this store the information if only kept for as long as it is thought about. The capacity of short-term memory is 7+/- 2 items (Miller, 1956). Once something else has been thought about the previous information is lost, that is unless the information is rehersed. If it is rehersed then it will then enter the next store which is long-term memory. From this store information can be retrieved and brought back to the short-term memory store to be used at a later date.

To use this in education the teachers can try to make sure that the students are always paying attention, and by rehersing the information so that it is transferred to long-term memory. The teacher can ask for answers (testing students informally) to go over what they have been studying so that they can prevent the decay of the information (McDaniel, Anderson, Derbish & Morrisette, 2007).

Badelly and Hitch, (1974) put forward the working memory model.

As you can see from the image above this is a more complex model than the mulit-store model of memory (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968). There are three main components of the working memory model; the phonological loop, the visuo-spacial sketchpad and the central executive. The phonological loop is the ‘inner voice’ of a person, this is where information can be rehersed, for example, when you are actively thinking about something or trying to remeber it, like a phone number. Rehersal of the information helps prevent it from immediate decay. The visuo-spacial scratchpad is the ‘inner eye’, this is where visual information from the environment is stored, for example, you may be able to visualise the blobfish you saw earlier in my blog and you may be able to recall certain features that it had. The central executive is the ‘main controller’, this is where all of the information is controlled and information can be passed and retrieved from the other stores. So although the information about the blobfish is stored in your visuo-spacial scratchpad, you need the central executive to select the information and retrieve it for you. In 2000 Baddelly added a fourth component to this model of working memory, he added an episodic buffer. The episodic buffer allows the information on the other stores to be linked together so that we are able to form knowledge bases about the look of an object and the sound, for example, we know what a dog looks like and what it sounds like.

Memory boosting drugs… are they worth the money?

A couple of years ago a new film came out called Limitless, in this film the main character is offered a drug that enables him to use 100% of his brain and by doing this he is very aware if his surroundongs, can recall all of his memories and can learn much faster than before. Before I saw this film I had never even considered that there may be these kinds of things out there but a quick google search shows up all kinds of drugs that claim to boost memory (obviously not to the extent of this film) but they are available to anyone with access to the internet.

For this blog I will only concentrate on the herbal drugs that are out there, this is because herbal drugs are potentially widely available to students and we will find out if they can be beneficial.

From my google search I found a herbal Nootropic drug called Doxiderol. This drug claims to improve memory, enhance focus, increase attention span, generate intense energy and improve the retention of new information. Doxiderol claims to start to work in only 15 minutes and improves both short term and long term memory.

What is in these drugs?

So by now you may be wondering what is in these miracle drugs that can work so fast, well you may be surprised, most of these things you will probably find in your kitchens already! Doxiderol, like many others like it is made up of caffeine, L-Theanine, vitamin B5, citcicoline, vinpocetine, and Acetyl-L-carnitine.

Can these different herbal supplements work?

  • Caffeine – in these drugs caffeine is used to improve the concentration and focus of the person taking the drug. Caffeine is widely available in the form of coffee or in most fizzy drinks such as Coca-cola. Nehlig (2010) found that caffeine only faciltates learning when information is presented passively (think of lectre theatre), and when information is purposely being learned (think of revision) caffeine has been shown to have no effect on learning. Although caffeine can improve concentration and focus at low doses (Nehlig, 2010) it has been shown to cause headaches in young children and adolences when consumed excessively (Hering-Hanit & Gadoth, 2003). Thus possibly having a negative effect on students trying to use it as a stimulant.
  • Acetyl-L-carnitine – in these drugs acetyl-l-carnetine is used as an antioxident as it can pass the blood-brain barrier. In the brain acetyl-l-carnetine has been shown to prevent the deterioration of brain cells (Ishii, Shimpo, Matsuoka & Kinoshita, 2000). A more natural way for a student to obtain acetyl-l-carnitine is to incorporate it into their diet. This can be found in red meats and (for vegetarians) small amounts can be found in fruits, vegetables, grains and eggs.
  • L-theanine – in these drugs L-theanine is used for its capabilities of reducing stress and stabilising moods. It is mainly used as it counters some of the negative effects brought on by the consumption of caffeine. Owen, Parnell, De Bruin & Rycroft (2008) found that when ceffeine and L-theanine are combined it improved the speed and accuracy of their participants. Haskell, Kennedy, Milne, Wesnes & Scholey (1973) studied this combination on headache and fatigue ratings and found that when used together these ratings reduced. Green tea is a good source of L-theanine.
  • Vinpocetine – in these drugs this is described as the viagra for the brain. This is becasue is it a vasodialotor and increases blood flow to the brain. There is not a way to take this naturally in food as it is a plant.
  • Citicoline and vitamin B5 – in these drugs these are used for their effect on the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is involved with the learning and retention of new information, and decreased levels have been found to prevent recall (Kramer et al, 1992). Citicoline increases the levels of choline, which then increases acetylcholine. To do this vitamin B5 is essential as it is used to breakdown the choline into acetylcholine. The best sources of vitamin B5 is liver, bran and sunflower seeds. The best sources for citicoline is beans, meats and eggs.

Is it worth it?

After looking at what is in the natural drugs that claim to improve memory it is not worth buying them (they can be very costly), and it is not worth giving them to students to improve their performance in Education, this is because a lot of what these drugs contain are already present in foods that can be consumed easily. Perhaps these foods could be incorporated in dinners that are offered at the education centres such as schools, colleges etc. to boost the students memories.

Brain Training… does it work?

Last week I blogged about factors that affect memory; age, stress and drugs, and some comments on this blogs noted ways to reduce these factors to remove the effect on memory, so I thought for this week I would move forward on to look at ways of impoving memory.

When I first thought of how to impove memory I thought about these brain training games that are always advertised on televsion, I have to admit that when they first came out I did have one, Dr Kawashima’s brain training for DS, although I do not think it made my memory any better I did improve on the tasks that were set by the game.

The aim of these games such as the ones by Nintendo, Lumosity and other companies are set to improve the working memory. These training games use both verbal and non-verbal tasks such as reasoning and comprehension. But do they work???

So when looking for research in this area I thought with there being such a big market for these kinds of games that I would find a wealth of evidence to support the use of these kinds of games, however when loooking this was not the case, some studies are able to support that these games work for older adults (Smith et al. 2009) and Thorell et al. (2009) show significantly better effects on working memory when used on preschool age children. However, studies have failed to find that these games improve working memory in the general population or that these skills that are trained on the games trasfer to other tasks, even when they are closey related (Owen et al. 2010).

Although the research shows that for people in the general population these games could be a waste of money, they could be useful in pre-schools, as they have been shown to be effective in children this age. Although you may think that this could prove costly, this is not the case, a quick look on the app store shows a lot of free games of this nature, and there a free downloads on the internet too. This could be a fun way for the children to improve their general cognitive functions.