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What is memory?
Memory is our ability to learn something, then store it, retain it and recall it when needed. Our memories are fundamental to our sense of self, to our personality, our history and the ability to navigate through our world. It's been said also that memory is more about helping us predict the future than dwelling on the past. On almost every level of human activity, from communication and movement to problem solving and having relationships, our memories are called into action.
How could our brains cope with memorising everything?
They don't. Strictly speaking a lot of what we perceive is discarded. It's only really the unique "memorable" aspects of the event or experience that we retain, especially if we have already acquired associated knowledge. We use what we already know to fill in the blanks. A powerful way to exploit existing knowledge is through analogy. Complex ideas and jargon is hard to get to grips with but explain it through a simple story and we get it.
Are we paying attention?
Many things affect how well we remember, such as your degree of attentiveness. People who find they have difficulty paying attention ('goes in one ear and out the other') may find it helps to make a conscious effort to repeat what they've just heard several times in order to help retain information. Your memory performance can also be affected by how motivated you are by something. You might have a fantastic memory for sporting statistics but don't have a head for numbers simply because you love sport and hate mathematics.
Your emotional state is especially important for memory. The intensity of the experience, your mood at the time you acquired the information - these become part of the memory itself and indeed, can influence your recollection of the event later on. Take for example what psychologists sometimes call a 'flashbulb memory' - your experience of hearing a major public news event - usually something amazing or shocking - for example, the death of Princess Diana or the news of the September 11 attacks in New York. Many people can remember vivid details about what they were doing and how they were feeling at the time they heard such news.
Location, location, location
Our memory systems record all sorts of contextual information when we experience something and this is important for helping us retrieve it. Sights, sound and in particular smells can help us conjure up a memory. Sometimes you've actually forgotten the specifics of the memory itself - the bit of information you're trying to access but we can still get to it via the contextual information. It's how most of us find our keys in the morning!