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17 September 2014
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The psychology of memory

Why do we have different ways of remembering things? Matthew Saxton offers a psychologist's perspective on memory.

Memory underpins every thought we have and everything we have learned, from how we walk and talk, through to recognising our favourite movie stars in a magazine.

Memory is at the heart of cognitive psychology; the branch of psychology that deals with mental processes and their effects on human behaviour. Most of us take memory for granted until the point when it fails and we forget something.

Psychologists talk about different kinds of memory: sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory.

Going, going, gone

Sensory memory is the direct pathway to the mind. It is the impression that new information makes on the mind and lasts for only a fraction of a second before fading forever. Imagine if you remembered absolutely everything that you saw or heard?

Every second, millions of stimuli bombard your senses. You would soon be overwhelmed with too much information. Luckily, we only remember things that grab our attention and get processed in working memory.


People who speak very quickly tend to have a high working memory capacity.

Even then, we are severely limited in terms of the amount of information we can work on and keep in memory at one time. When we have to remember a new phone number without the help of pen and paper, we are using our working memory.

When it comes to words, we can only keep fresh as many words as we can say in about two seconds. People who speak very quickly tend to have a high working memory capacity because they can pack more words into those two seconds than slow talkers.

Instant retrieval

Even information in working memory will fade unless it is transferred to the permanent store known as long-term memory. But once it is there, we cannot always get it out. We have all had trouble recalling someone’s name or the answer to an easy quiz question.

Psychologists have found that new memories can interfere with old ones, making us believe that something happened when it never actually did. This finding is of great importance in criminal prosecutions, when witnesses try to recall events of critical importance.

It also has implications for cases of recovered memories, where adults who previously thought they had had a normal childhood begin to recall traumatic events such as sexual abuse.

Dr Matthew Saxton is a lecturer in psychology at Westminster University, London.

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