Thinking : Memory, remembering.


Recall is not necessarily guaranteed once something has been learned. The act of remembering itself can prove problematic. There are factors that have a significant influence on our ability to recall information from memory on demand. Some of these factors relate to the way information was learned and some relate to other contextual issues such as environment, meaning and predictability.

If knowledge is well organised when it is acquired, then it will generally be easier to remember. Most of us have had experience of knowing that we know something but not being able to remember it at the time.

Memories can often be accessed through other contextual keys. Remembering what you had to eat in a restaurant may be easier when you remember that your partner spilt soup on their clothes and the soup was red because it stood out on the yellow top, tomato soup, followed by ...


It is known that the biological basis of memory is chemical and physical change to brain cell (neuron) junctions (synaps). It is also clear that an individual element of memory may simply contribute to whether a neuron fires or not at a certain point in time. Clearly, memory of higher level concepts must require great organisation within the brain. Some researchers believe that this higher level organisation resembles some sort of concept or semantic mapping. In this model, new memories are better organised if they can be attached to or associated with existing knowledge. This network of knowledge supports recall by allowing us to access knowledge via links with current thoughts.

Is it therefore possible for us to learn something that is completely new to us and has no existing associations. If we can learn such knowledge, will we ever be able to recall in, how would it be found again?


Photo : Claude

In 1948, the late Claude Shannon published a revolutionary theory about communications. The theory took advantage of the fact that certain items in a message are predictable given the rest of the surrounding message. Shannon was able to develop sound mathematical theory to show just how predictable parts of a message were. (see Encyclopedia of Computer Science. Chapman and Hall, 1993)

Consider the following sentence:

I went down to the local .... to purchase some groceries.

You are likely to be able to predict the missing word given the context of the sentence and your existing general knowledge.

Experiments can show that the closer lists of words are to readable sentences, the more words people can remember. The more predictable the information, the easier it is to remember. Most people find children's text more predictable and therefore remember more.


Environmental factors

Bartlett (1932) suggested that memory should be studied in a more natural context. His work involved subjects remembering stories and then attempting recall. Some of his work showed that where subjects could not easily associate the details of the story with their own environment, that part of the story was likely to be omitted or changed during recall. Bartlett observed that the first thing a subject may remember is his or her attitude to the story. From there, the story was reconstructed (remembered). This can clearly give rise to bias in memory.

Try asking supporters of opposing football teams for an objective summary of the match. They both saw the same match, although this may not be obvious from their reports.


Many experiments have shown that information that has been organised is more memorable than disorganised information. Consider the following example from Your Memory: A users Guide: Alan Baddeley Penguin 1993.


Disorganised List

  • Emerald
  • Platinum
  • Limestone
  • Gold
  • Aluminuim
  • Silver
  • Ruby
  • Marble
  • Lead
  • Sapphire
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Diamond
  • Granite

Organised List


Metals Rocks
Rare Common Precious Masonry
Platinum Aluminium Emerald Limestone
Gold Lead Ruby Marble
Silver Iron Sapphire Granite
  Copper Diamond  

Visual Mnemonics

Another successful way to organise and therefore make words more memorable is to entwine them in a story. It is a good idea to make the story suit your taste or contain familiar items. Organising information can be more sophisticated and can, in some cases, lead to quite remarkable feats of memory.

Peg Words

One way of employing visual mnemonics is to first learn ten peg words. These may be:

  • One = bun
  • Two = shoe
  • Three = tree
  • Four = door
  • Five = hive
  • Six = sticks
  • Seven = heaven
  • Eight = gate
  • Nine = wine
  • Ten = hen.

If you want to remember ten unrelated things in order, you can form images using the numbered peg words. For instance, if the first three things were car, table and elephant, you could create images such as:

  • A car advertising Joe's BUN'S is driving down the road with a huge illuminated bun on the roof.
  • There are people sitting at a table outside a street cafe and each leg of the table is wearing a shoe.
  • Further down the street, in the direction where the car has gone, people are gathering in the park because there is an Elephant trapped up a tree and the fire brigade are trying to rescue it.

You can also use this method to remember numbers by creating images with the peg words.


Another way to use visual mnemonics is to choose a familiar scene, for instance, walking into your home and into the living area. On the way you will pass familiar objects. If you want to remember other items, possibly in order, you can attach the items to the objects in your home in some visually meaningful way. You will find that the objects are much easier to remember using such techniques.


Your Memory: A users Guide: Alan Baddeley Penguin 1993 Page 100 gives an amazing account of a Russian mnemonist, Shereshevskii. Shereshevskii could commit almost anything, instantly to memory because he had an amazing capacity for visualisation. He could remember long strings of numbers (100 or more), complex diagrams, scientific formulae, even years later. However, his memory could also cause difficulty, if someone coughed when the information to be remembered was read out, this may appear as a puff of steam or smoke that could obscure the image, the source of recall.

It is possible for less gifted people to acquire such memory skills that can seem quite amazing, but maybe not quite as good as Shereshevskii's

Magic Square

Magic Square

The magic square is a 3x3 array of boxes each containing one of the numbers 1 to 9. In each direction, horizontally, vertically and diagonally the three numbers add up to 15. How do you remember which number goes in which box.

The following sentence uses visual, verbal and auditory memory:

For nine to free five, seven ate one six.


Most of what we learn has some meaning. The more new information means to us, the better are our chances at remembering it. Meaning and association are important factors in learning and remembering. Even if words are used as a memory test rather than nonsense syllables, meaning can still influence the results.

Try to memorise lists 1 & 2 below. You are likely to be able to remember more words from list 2 than list 1. Words that refer to concrete objects are easier to remember than abstract concepts where visualisation is difficult. Lists 1 & 2 are themselves meaningless but List 3 will be much easier to remember.

List 1

  • Knowledge
  • Motivation
  • Silence
  • Mood
  • Rebellion
  • Creativity
  • Life
  • Wealth
  • Sorrow
  • Enthusiasm
  • Cruelty

List 2

  • Telephone
  • Cup
  • Soldier
  • Banana Book
  • Chair
  • Spider
  • Barbecue
  • spanner
  • Tubing
  • melon

List 3

  • Large
  • Grey
  • Elephants
  • Terrified
  • By
  • Roaring
  • Flames
  • Trampled
  • Tiny
  • Defenseless
  • Rabbits


Your Memory: A users Guide: Alan Baddeley Penguin 1993

Some universities carry web based information that advises on how to learn and recall information for examination purposes. A good way to find these sites is to search for ‘learning remembering’.

The Open University provides a good reference section on Study Skills.