How Do We Encode Information to Memory?
What is Memory Encoding?
Memory Encoding is the process in which raw and external data is converted to information that can be readily stored in memory. The process of memory encoding encompasses cognitive activities such as attention, information processing, elaboration, and imagery.
The Role of Attention in Memory Encoding
Before we even encode raw data into memory, we have to attend first to the data itself. This reflects how selective attention is. We must selectively attend to, or focus on, specific data, and ignore others, in order to convert it effectively into information. However, attention can sometimes be divided, as when we attend to several things simultaneously. Because the brain's resources are limited, divided attention poses overloading of memory encoding, resulting to less converted data, and thus less stored data, and difficulty remembering. For example, Schacter (2001) observed that research participants who were instructed to remember a list of words or a story while monitoring a series of tones and identifying whether the tones are high- or low-pitched significantly remembered less than those who were allowed undivided attention to do the task.
The Different Levels of Memory Encoding
Fergus Craik and Robert Lockhart (1972) proposed that memory encoding occurs in three different levels. This model of memory encoding is widely accepted among psychologists today.
Memory encoding may occur in the shallow, intermediate, and deepest level. In the shallow level, only the physical and sensory features of the stimulus are converted and encoded to memory. In the intermediate level, the stimulus is recognized and given a name. Lastly, in the deepest level, the stimulus is given a meaning. To illustrate how the different levels of memory encoding take place, imagine this scenario: You are mindlessly crossing the road at night when the dark surrounding began to light up (shallow level). You then recognized that the light was coming from an approaching vehicle behind you (intermediate), so you walked faster to avoid being hit (deepest level). In that scenario, you engaged in the deepest level when you associated the approaching vehicle with possible accident.
Research by Wagner et al. (1998) showed how deep level memory encoding aids in memory storage and retrieval, and how it is related to brain activity. Using magnetic resonance imaging, he observed the brain activity of his research participants while they engage in cognitive tasks. He flashed a list of words every two seconds in front of the screen and asked them to identify if the words were in uppercase or lowercase letters, that is, to engage in shallow memory encoding. Afterwards, he asked the participants to identify if the words conveyed abstract or concrete meaning, that is, to engage in deep level memory encoding. He found that memory for the list of words dramatically increased with deep level memory encoding, and that neural activity was significantly robust, especially in the left frontal lobe.
Memory Encoding and Elaboration
Memory researchers have found that besides depth, memory encoding also occurs extensively. Elaboration is the extensiveness of encoding at any given level. Using the previous illustration of "crossing the road", elaboration in the shallow level could mean not just seeing the dark surroundings light up, but also hearing wheel noise and a possibly a honk; elaboration in the intermediate level could mean identifying the vehicle as a car and not a truck; and, elaboration in the deepest level could mean not just trying to avoid an accident, but associating this possible accident with previously witnessed accidents.
Elaboration widens the scope of memory. It aids in the enrichment and distinctiveness of memory codes. For example, it would be difficult to distinguish between _identical twins unless you've talked to them and observed some minor differences in their facial features, their hair styles, and clothing preferences. Elaboration is therefore seen by most educators to be helpful in improving students' memory. One type of deep elaboration, called self-referencing, in which data is associated with personal values and past experiences during encoding, is now being utilized by most educators to improve students' active involvement in education. Reconstructing preconceived notions in students, although difficult, is effective because it is a kind of self-referencing.
Using Imagery to Effectively Encode Information to Memory
Imagery is a form of elaboration where information is represented as mental pictures. In one extreme case, a man (Let's call him S.), known for his remarkable memory, uses imagery to remember information significantly better than the average person can. At first, S didn't know he was different, until the time when his editor noticed him not taking notes while he gave assignments to his team. Feeling void of respect, the editor challenged S to report the details of his assignment. Astoundingly, S reported word-for-word the details of his assignments and the assignments of the entire team.
According to Alexander Luria (1968), who chronicled S's life since their first acquaintance in Russia in the 1920s, S has no apparent limits in his ability to recall. Whereas an average person can remember 5 to 9 numbers from a list without practice, S can remember even more than 70 numbers, and can accurately report them in backward or reverse order, and that was even after 15 years from initial exposure, without practice or warning. S can also accurately reproduce unknown language passages after hearing them only once. He was even able to describe Luria's clothes and where he was sitting at the time the memory tasks were given to him. How did S do that? So long as words are spoken slowly, S constructs meaningful visual representations of them that he can readily remember. In one task, S was asked to remember a very complicated formula.
S studied the formula for 7 minutes and reported how he memorized it, which went like this: "Neiman (N) jabbed the ground with his cane (.), looked up a tall tree (^), and realized that the withered and exposed roots of the tree were due to the two houses (d^2) he built near it. He again poked his cane (.) and thought about selling the houses from his original investment of 85,000 (85)..." S was able to remember the formula even after 15 years without prior notice.Allan Paivio (1971, 1986) explains why imagery is an effective memory encoding strategy. According to Allan Paivio, memory for pictures, so long as they can be labeled, is better than memory for words, because the former is encoded both as image codes and verbal codes. Thus, with imagery, information is stored both pictorially and verbally, thereby providing more avenues for recall.
The scientific study of imagery as a cognitive process was shunned away in the 1940s and 1950s by behaviorists because imagery is found to be too mentallistic and unobservable. However, today's research studies about memory are now recognizing the importance of cognition in the study of psychology. Psychological research shows that imagery is particularly useful in helping students remember associations and learn foreign languages.