You retrieve your long-term memories via multiple pathways. The pathway you use to retrieve a memory has a lot to do with how you learned the information in the first place. You may be a visual learner, so you learn by seeing and remember by visualizing the images that you saw. Or you may be an auditory learner, meaning you learn by hearing sounds and retrieve memories by recalling the associated sounds.
Common mechanisms of learning memory retrieval pathways include the following:
- Emotions (feelings)
- Smells (olfactory)
- Sounds (auditory)
- Sights (visual)
- Movement or three-dimensional perspective (spatial)
- Touch/sensation (tactile)
One of the ways that your brain codes memories relates to your emotions at the time the memory was created. How you felt emotionally during the event is tied to your memory of the event. This combination of memory and emotion is often called state-based. The emotional state you were in at the time of the event carries your memory. Perhaps you’re feeling sad and you suddenly think about your favorite late uncle, Fred. Your emotional state of sadness triggered the parts of your brain associated with the memory of that emotion, and you remember how sad you felt when Uncle Fred died.
Have you ever smelled a particular aroma and found yourself overwhelmed by a memory of an event long since past? You may smell fresh bread baking and remember the homemade loaves your mother made when you were a child. Or the whiff of a certain perfume in a crowded elevator conjures up memories of your grandma.
Why does this sudden memory happen? Is it some kind of magic? In a way, it is — it’s the magic of evolution. As a mammal, you’re the product of millions of years of evolution. Your olfactory bulbs, which record the sense of smell, lie almost on top of your hippocampus. They are like two elongated petals that act like sensory shortcuts for memory.
As a mammal, you have emotionally based experiences via your limbic system. Yet you also have a large cerebral cortex sitting right on top of this limbic system that tempers and controls those emotions. Maybe you were bitten by a big dog as a child, so when you encounter a big dog as an adult, you experience fear. This reaction happens because your prior experience of being hurt by a big dog made you feel afraid. But because of your mammalian heritage, you can adapt your emotions and override prior state-based memories. If your spouse became blind and required a large seeing-eye dog, you could overcome your previous dog-fear association through new positive interactions with the new big working dog.
You remember an event far more easily if it has emotional meaning for you. The more important the information is to you, the more prominent it will be in your memory. Similarly, the more motivated you are to remember an event or information, the better chance you’ll have remembering it.
Your memories for what you hear are found largely in your temporal lobes. Sounds of all types carry with them memories colored by when and how you’ve heard them.
The sound of a firecracker elicits different memories for different people. One person may happily remember the beauty of Fourth of July fireworks. However, a war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder wounded by a bomb during combat may feel a surge of panic and fear upon hearing the same sound.
You may have experienced driving down the road and hearing a piece of music on the radio that lifted you to memories that you hadn’t tried to recall. You may remember the first time you heard it or a time you spent with someone you loved. Memories of that person pepper the highway in front of you.
You have your own associations to different types and pieces of music, especially if you’ve heard the music on many occasions in more than one setting. The mood of the music can change your mood. Music therapists utilize this knowledge and play upbeat music for emotionally troubled people to help them perk up.
The phrase a picture is worth a thousand words may be trite, but it’s true. You use visual imagery to code a vast number of your memories. Each visual image carries with it numerous thoughts, and trying to remember all of those thoughts is much more difficult than remembering the image itself.
Thoughts that evoke visual images are far clearer later on than those that don’t evoke visual imagery. This dual coding creates a stronger memory: You code not only the thoughts or experiences but also the visual image associated with it.
The power of visual images can resonate with you for years. Take a moment to prove this point to yourself: Look at some object in the room, like a chair. Now close your eyes. For a few seconds, you’ll notice an afterimage. However, that image fades away as you go on to note new sensations and thoughts. Now go back to reading and don’t look back at the chair. Notice that many of the details of the chair have faded. The image probably isn’t as sharp as it was before.
That image is affected by your mood and what you’ve been thinking about since originally seeing it. Now when you try to visualize that chair’s image, it’s no longer an objective representation of the image but one colored by your mood and your most recent thoughts.
You don’t need a photographic memory, however, to use visual images as memory enhancers. A simple visual image can carry with it an association to an abstract concept, whereas a simple word may not.
Here are some other examples of how using visual images can help you remember:
- You want to remember the abstract idea of location. The location includes a lake, and that’s much easier to remember. With the word lake, you have an opportunity to visualize an image of a lake. You may even embellish that image with the sun gently reflecting on the still waters of the lake. The word lake can even carry a personal association. Perhaps you vacation each summer on a lake or are a hearty ice fisher who braves below-freezing temperatures as you sit above a hole cut into the ice. Now think of the word location. Which location? Perhaps a lake?
- Suppose you want to try to remember the decadence of the late Roman emperors such as Caligula and Nero. Try to imagine a banquet with toga-clad people gorging themselves and throwing grapes at one another. That scene will help you remember better than you would if someone just told you to remember the words Caligula, Nero, and decadence.
- You’re trying to remember to ship documents to your sister across the country. You need to try to remember the words ship and package. Imagine a large package floating in the sea with two large masts with sails being blown across the water.
As a practical memory aid, choose images that represent the information you want to remember and put them into an exaggerated scene. This technique really works!
Obviously, visual images aren’t as useful if you’re blind. In that case, other senses and memory triggers such as smell, touch, sound, and words become much more important. (Of course, they’re also important if you can see!)
The degree to which words are useful as memory cues depends on how adept you are at using words. If you’re very skilled using words, the subtle nuances of words can carry complex memories. Poets have a high linguistic intelligence and are masters of this talent.
The combination of visual imagery (or other sense experiences) and words as cues for memory is the most powerful of all. Any time you have an opportunity to try to remember something by using multiple channels, your memory will be stronger and your recall will be easier.
Compared with adolescents or adults, young children are more adept at visual imagery than at verbal memories. This conclusion comes as no surprise because young children are just beginning to learn language. A child’s vocabulary jumps astronomically between the ages of 1 and 5 and continues to expand into adulthood. The rate of vocabulary growth slows down as people get older because they’ve learned most of what they need to know to talk. However, you can continue to expand your vocabulary. Learn new words by taking classes, reading, or doing crossword puzzles. Doing so increases your capacity to remember based on verbal cues.