This article summarize some memory myths synthesized by Kenneth Higbee in his book - Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It. These insights will give you a realistic idea of what you can expect and what you cannot expect from your memory.
In some ways people expect too much from their memories; in other ways they expect too little. A realistic understanding of what the potential is for your memory can help you achieve that potential.
MYTH 1: MEMORY IS A THING
People often talk about their memories as if a memory were some thing that they possess. Memory does not exist in the sense of some thing (object, organ, gland, etc.) that can be seen, touched, weighed, or X-rayed.
The word memory is merely an abstraction that refers to a process rather than a structure. As one experienced memory researcher wrote recently, “Over the past 10 years my ideas have moved progressively away from a view of memory as a structural system—a ‘thing in the head’—and towards the viewpoint . . . of remembering as an activity.”
Recent approaches to memory are organized around the idea of separate subsystems. There appear to be at least three memory systems—sensory, short-term, and long-term.
In light of the complexity of your memory it should not be too surprising that psychologists must measure several features when they try to diagnose memory. For example, the most widely used memory scale, the Wechsler Memory Scale, consists of seven different subtests that are added together to give a summary score of memory functioning.
Thus, when we talk about improving “memory,” we are not talking about some thing that we are making stronger or bigger.
MYTH 2: THERE IS A SECRET TO A GOOD MEMORY
Some people who read a book or take a course on memory training expect to find the secret of memory improvement—the one key that will enable them to master their memories completely. They hope that if they can just do that one thing, they will never again forget anything they see or hear. This is an unrealistic expectation.
Many techniques and systems can serve as tools to build an effective memory and enable us to do amazing things that cannot be done with the unaided memory. What these memory tools do, they do very powerfully, but no tool does the whole job by itself. You cannot build a complete memory with a single memory tool any more than you can build a complete building with a single carpentry tool.
The practical implication of this consideration is that when a person asks how he can improve his memory, he cannot expect a useful answer until he makes his question more specific. What kind of material does he want to remember? In what way? Under what circumstances? For how long? There are methods and principles in this book that apply to almost any kind of learning situation, but none applies to all situations.
Not only there is no single secret to mastering your memory but most memory techniques are not even “secrets.” One widely used memory system is about 2,500 years old, and many others are more than 300 years old.
MYTH 3: THERE IS AN EASY WAY TO MEMORIZE
Remembering is hard work, and memory techiques do not necessarily make it easy, they just make it more effective.
Because remembering is a learned skill, improving memory is like developing any other skill. You must work at it by learning the appropriate techniques and practicing them.
Research on learning strategies used by students in school supports this idea: Improved study effectiveness and school performance do not come easy, but depend on extensive training and practice with study skills and learning strategies.
Author's experiences and observations suggest that laziness may play a role in the inability of many adults to learn and remember as well as they say they would like to. They are not used to investing the mental effort necessary to learn as they had to do when they were in school. They have gotten out of the habit of studying and are not willing to put in the work it takes to remember effectively. Research has shown that number of years of schooling and currently being in school were both positively related to memory ability and use of memory techniques in middle-aged women, and that adults who remain mentally active by maintaining reading and studying habits are able to remember what they read better than adults who do not stay mentally active.
MYTH 4: SOME PEOPLE ARE STUCK WITH BAD MEMORIES
Even if there are such innate differences as a good memory and bad memory, except for a few extreme cases these innate differences are not nearly as important in the ability to remember as are differences in learned memory skills.
The capacity of your memory is a function of the memory techniques you use more than a function of any innate differences in memory ability. Thus, improving your techniques improves your capacity.
The usable capacity of your memory depends more on how you store information rather than it does on any innate “capacity.”
MYTH 5: SOME PEOPLE ARE BLESSED WITH PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORIES
Most psychologists do not believe in this popular notion of a photographic memory, although there is a valid phenomenon called eidetic imagery that is somewhat similar to this notion.
In a sense, the photographic memory myth is just the flip side of the bad memory myth. Both lead people to emphasize innate differences in memory ability rather than learned memory skills.
When people with amazing memories are tested in controlled research settings it is usually found that what most people would attribute to photographic memory is not something innate, but is merely the skillful application of powerful memory techniques that virtually anyone can use if he or she really wants to learn the techniques and practice them.
MYTH 6: SOME PEOPLE ARE TOO OLD/YOUNG TO IMPROVE THEIR MEMORIES
“The quickest way to become an old dog is to quit learning new tricks.”
There has been a lot of recent research interest in memory of the elderly. Not too surprisingly, most research has shown that elderly adults do not learn as efficiently or remember as well as young adults do.
There is a saying: " The error of youth is to think that intelligence is a substitute for experience, while the error of age is to think that experience is a substitute for intelligence. " Although neither intelligence nor experience may completely substitute for the other, research indicates that a rich experience and knowledge base helps many old adults perform some mental tasks at the same or higher levels as young adults, even though they might not be able to learn as quickly. Such “practical intelligence” can compensate for many negative effects of aging.
MYTH 7: MEMORY, LIKE A MUSCLE, BENEFITS FROM EXERCISE
There is no substantial evidence that practice alone makes a significant difference in improving memory. It is true that practicing memorizing can help improve memory, but what you do during practice is more important than the amount of practice.
One classic study found that 3 hours of practicing memorizing did not improve long-term memory, but that 3 hours of practicing using certain techniques did improve long-term memory.
MYTH 8: A TRAINED MEMORY NEVER FORGETS
Many people do not realize that a person who has a trained memory does not necessarily remember everything. They expect that once they learn the secret of a good memory, they will never again forget anything. But the advantage of a well-trained memory is that you can remember what you want to remember, and you don’t necessarily want to remember everything. Realistically, even with a trained memory, you are still likely to forget even some of the things you want to remember. You just won’t forget as much as most people do, or as much as you used to forget.
MYTH 9: REMEMBERING TOO MUCH CAN CLUTTER YOUR MIND
To say that remembering too much can clutter your mind is an ironic memory myth, because most people’s minds are already cluttered—and they don’t remember enough! Your ability to remember something depends less on how much material you have stored in your memory than it does on how you learned it
In some ways, the more you learn about something the more it may actually help memory. In other words - the more you learn about a particular topic the easier it is to learn new things about that topic.
MYTH 10: PEOPLE ONLY USE 10 PERCENT OF THEIR MENTAL POTENTIAL
What is wrong with the 10-percent claim ? The main problem is that none of these authors that support such a claim doesn't present any evidence to support the 10-percent figure.
It is possible that there may be some research evidence to support the 10-percent claim, but the author doubts it for several reasons. First, he doubts the fact that researchers could agree on a definition of what “mental potential” or “potential brainpower” really means. Second, even if researchers could define mental potential, he doubts that they could measure it to determine what constitutes a person’s total potential. Third, even if they could define and measure mental potential, he doubts that researchers could define what it means to “use” our mental potential, and that there would be any way to measure what percentage of the total we use.
F. I. M. Craik, “Paradigms in Human Memory Research,” in Perspectives on Learning and Memory, ed. L. Nilsson and T. Archer (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1985), 200. ↩︎
M. K. Johnson and L. Hasher, “Human Learning and Memory,” in Annual Review of Psychology vol. 38, ed. M. R. Rosenzweig and L. W. Porter (Palo Alto, Calif.: Annual Reviews, Inc., 1987), 631–68. ↩︎
I. M. L. Hunter, Memory, rev. ed. (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1964), 282–83. ↩︎
P. R. Pintrich, D. R. Cross, R. B. Kozman, and W. J. McKeachie, “Instructional Psychology,” in Rosenzweig and Porter (1/2, vol. 37, 1986), 611–51; M. Pressley, J. G. Borkowski, and W. Schneider, “Good Strategy Users Coordinate Metacognition, Strategy Use, and Knowledge,” in Annals of Child Development, vol. 4, ed. R. Vasta and G. Whitehurst (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1987), 89–129. ↩︎
Schooling—M.T. Zivian and R. W. Darjes, “Free Recall By In-School and Out-of-School Adults: Performance and Metamemory,” Developmental Psychology 19 (1983): 513–20. Habits—G. E. Rice and B. J. F. Meyer, “The Relation of Everyday Activities of Adults to Their Prose Recall Performance” (paper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, April 1986). ↩︎
S. L. Willis and K. W. Schaie, “Practical Intelligence in Later Adulthood,” in Practical Intelligence: Nature and Origins of Competence in the Everyday World, ed. R. J. Sternberg and R. K. Wagner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 236–68. ↩︎