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How Memory Works...

Forming New Memories

A visual reprensentation of how memories are formed. The image matches the text description that follows.

The above diagram depicts a simplified version of how memories are formed. The arrows on the left represent sensory input received through one or more senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, balance). This information is briefly stored in the sensory register. If the stimuli is too weak it will not go beyond the sensory register (represented by the "decay" arrow). Stimuli strong enough to move past the sensory register is then moved to short-term memory where it can be stored for a few seconds, up to a few minutes. Stimuli that is not processed further will be lost through "displacement." If the individual continues to pay attention to the stimuli it is further processed in the working memory where it can still be recalled after several minutes. This stimuli can be forgotten through interference or retrieval failure. Though further attention and work stimuli may be stored in long-term memory where it can possibly remain for the individual's lifetime. The information that follows provides more insight into barriers to forming and recalling memories.

Memory and The Learning Pyramid

Visual depiction of memory and learning - matches text that follows

The learning pyramid provides a graphical representation of the most effective way of learning and remembering more material. It depicts the following average learning retention rates:

  • Lecture: 5% retention
  • Reading: 10% retention
  • Audio-Visual: 20% retention
  • Demonstration: 30% retention
  • Discussion Group: 50% retention
  • Practice by Doing: 75% retention
  • Teaching Others: 90% retention

Obstacles to Forming Memories

Seven "Sins" of Memory

"Sins" of forgetting

  1. Transience – information not used is lost
  2. Absentmindedness – lack of attention during encoding
  3. Blocking – retrieval process is unable to happen

 "Sins" of distortion

  1. Misattribution – incorrectly identifying the time, place or person related to memory
  2. Suggestibility – incorporating information suggested by someone else into our memory
  3. Bias – current knowledge or needs distort memory of past

 "Sin" of persistence

  1. Traumatic or emotional events may cause memories to persist even when we would like to forget

Principles of Forgetting

  • Decay
  • Displacement
  • Interference
  • Incomplete Encoding
  • Retrieval Failure
  • Motivated forgetting
  • Tip-of-the tongue phenomenon
  • Serial positioning
  • Spacing of practice


  • Stimuli too weak to get beyond sensory register
  • Never processed
  • Forgetting takes place before short-term memory


  • Too much too rapidly
  • Or Inadequate processing time
  • Information never processed
  • Forgetting takes place at short-term memory stage
  • Never reaches working memory


  • Confusion between old and new information
  • OR Contradictions with similar information
  • Takes place in exchange between working memory and long-term memory or in working memory

Incomplete Encoding

  • Inadequate attention to detail
  • Inadequate practice or rehearsal
  • Lack of self-testing
  • Memories stored impartially in long-term memory
  • May not be detected until information needed in working memory again

Retrieval Failure

  • Unable to find information
  • Weak organization of storage in long-term memory
  • OR weak connections to old information, so information is stored as separate pieces more than groups of information
  • Also results from lack of use, weak pathways to information

Motivated Forgetting

  • Reasons to try to forget
  • Typically unpleasant or anxiety producing
  • Suppression
  • Consciously trying to forget
  • Repression
  • Subconsciously forgetting

Mysterious memory note - Impact of Trauma

Persistence– can't stop remembering
Suppression or Repression– choose not to remember or CANNOT remember

Other memory failures

  • Tip-of-the-tongue
    • Type of retrieval failure
    • Momentarily inaccessible
    • Due to interference, faulty cues, emotional states, etc.
  • Serial positioning
    • Remembering beginning or end of list better than middle
  • Spacing
    • Distributed practice – interspersed with rest periods
    • Massed practice – time spent learning is grouped into long unbroken intervals (cramming)

How You Can Improve Your Memory

Review our Memory Strategies to learn how to improve your retention and recall of information.