How does memory work?

Watch John Medina talk about how memory works

How does memory work? To begin with, we have to destroy the premise behind the question. We don't just have a memory system - like a computer has a hard-drive. We have various memory systems, each in charge of different types of learning. And they work in a semi-independent way from each other.

Though we've spent a long time looking, we don't actually know much about how these individual systems work. We know even less about how they are integrated.

Let me give you one striking example of how separate the systems are. James McGaugh has worked with a woman for a long period of time called A.J.

A.J. doesn't impress you with dramatic memory abilities when you first meet her. She is a C student. She doesn't have any flashbulb tendencies. Her declarative memory systems - the ability to remember things you can declare, like "Lincoln was the 16th president" appears to be pretty average. If all you looked at were her declarative systems, you wouldn't want to study her at all.

The problem is, AJ has more than just one memory system.

A.J.'s has a memory system that is anything but average.

She has very powerful what we call semantic autobiographical memory. She can remember anything she has ever done, what she has worn for dinner 15 years ago, what flowers she cut and put on the table, and so. Jim has studied her for years and can confirm that she remembers anything of a semantic autobiographical nature. In fact, she is eidetic in this category, photographic, flashbulb like.

Now here we have a conundrum. How come she can't apply that same talent to her schoolwork? The reason is simple. She has two memory systems that work in a semi-independent fashion. She has a great memory for personal experience, She has a poor memory for facts.

You see, memory isn't simple. So when you ask me "how does memory work?" my first response must be "Pray, about what memory system are you talking?"

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