How Human Memory Works

Memory Retrieval

When you want to remember something, you retrieve the information on an unconscious level, bringing it into your conscious mind at will. While most people think they have either a "bad" or a "good" memory, in fact, most people are fairly good at remembering some types of things and not so good at remembering others. If you do have trouble remembering something -- assuming you don't have a physical disease -- it's usually not the fault of your entire memory system but an inefficient component of one part of your memory system.

Let's look at how you remember where you put your eyeglasses. When you go to bed at night, you must register where you place your eyeglasses: You must pay attention while you set them on your bedside table. You must be aware of where you are putting them, or you won't be able to remember their location the following morning. Next, this information is retained, ready to be retrieved at a later date. If the system is working properly, when you wake up in the morning you will remember exactly where you left your eyeglasses.


If you've forgotten where they are, one of several things could have happened:

  • You may not have registered clearly where you put them down to begin with.
  • You may not have retained what you registered.
  • You may not be able to retrieve the memory accurately.

Therefore, if you want to stop forgetting where you left your eyeglasses, you will have to work on making sure that all three stages of the remembering process are working properly.

If you've forgotten something, it may be because you didn't encode it very effectively, because you were distracted while encoding should have taken place, or because you're having trouble retrieving it. If you've "forgotten" where you put your eyeglasses, you may not have really forgotten at all -- instead, the location of your eyeglasses may never have gotten into your memory in the first place. For example, you probably would say that you know what a five-dollar bill looks like, but most of the times that you've seen one, you've not really encoded its appearance, so that if you tried to describe it, you probably couldn't.

Distractions that occur while you're trying to remember something can really get in the way of encoding memories. If you're trying to read a business report in the middle of a busy airport, you may think you're remembering what you read, but you may not have effectively saved it in your memory.

Finally, you may forget because you're simply having trouble retrieving the memory. If you've ever tried to remember something one time and couldn't, but then later you remember that same item, it could be that there was a mismatch between retrieval cues and the encoding of the information you were searching for.

As we get older, memory problems tend to increase. In the next section, you will learn how aging can affect memory.