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The Psychology of Memory

Habits

Memory is one of the most abstract topics of philosophy, but psychologists studying brain anatomy have pinpointed systems and areas of the brain that are directly related to memory, self-control, and happiness. Our memories provide us with identities and experiences to adapt and learn from, and they serve as the fundamental building blocks we need to form relationships with people, places, and objects.

Besides painting a picture of the past, memory colors our perception of the present. Specific types of memory form instinctual responses to stimuli, similar to the way a practiced gymnast can land sure-footed even after multiple flips and revolutions. The most common understanding of human memory was published in 1968 by Atkinson and Shiffrin, and became the basis for the psychology of memory we study today.

Working with Memory

Our memory systems are divided into three subcategories. Sensory memory, lasting only a brief second, is illustrated by our ability to recall a picture visually moments after sight and remember details that we didn’t consciously process (Sperling, 1963). Short-term memory is the space we can dedicate to recall for a short period of time without practice or rehearsal, and is usually limited to five or nine items for under a minute (Miller, 1956). Long-term memory can be retained indefinitely, and shapes our identity, present perception, and future choices (Baddeley, 1966).

While short-term memory is stored acoustically and semantically, long-term episodic memory is recorded with an emphasis on meaning, purpose, place, and time. In the multi-store model first described by Atkinson and Shiffrin, sensory memory is brought into short term memory before being transferred to (and later retrieved from) long-term memory. It’s important to note that sensory stimuli and mindful observation is the first step in memory formation, followed by short term memory rehearsal and long-term storage and retrieval.

Recognition, Procedural Memory, and Recall

Recognition is the simplest form of memory, and it’s determined by your ability to recognize stimuli that has been previously experienced. Procedural memory works hand-in-hand with recognizable stimuli to create familiar motor patterns and is most similar to riding a bike, tying your shoelaces, or forming sounds to speak languages. Finally, recall is the ability to remember previously learned information. All three of these are crucial for habit formation and focus, whether it’s for healthier living, improved productivity and organization, or more effective leadership.

Memory and Habit Formation

Establishing professional habits uses recognition, recall, and procedural memory to respond to stimuli and act appropriately without using our limited willpower or energy throughout the day. Unfortunately, these systems are used, often times more effectively, by distractions and unproductive habits. When our brain responds to the notification of a new email, our short-term memory rehearsal is interrupted as we habitually check our inboxes and attempt to multitask.

Fortunately, building productive habits becomes easier with an understanding of memory. Spaced repetition alters the frequency of information recall to create powerfully focused long-term memories. As a new habit is being formed, frequent reminders are used to prompt change, until an action is ultimately incorporated as a habit. These reminders can take the form of recurring calendar events, preset alarms, or even email sequences with helpful reminders and encouragement. With stronger, more agile memories, we can choose to eliminate distractions, form healthy habits, and build better relationships.

Learn more about memory, focus, accountability, and conquering distractions with ProFocus.