The Function of Memory
Wednesday, October 15, 2008 at 9:15PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Learning, Motivation, & The Mind

We all remember things. Some people have really good memories, and others can't seem to recall events that have only transpired minutes before. Still, I haven't met many people who treat their memory like a muscle, something that can grow stronger and become more flexible through training and exercise. Our memories not only shape who we are, but can be used as a tool.

On a basic level, it's easy to draw the analogy between how memory works for people and how it works for computers. Both store and recall information. Both categorize data based on a wide variety of categories. And both can process and manipulate data for various purposes. Sometimes it seems that mankind marvels at the power of our personal computers while turning a blind eye to the natural, original computer we all come packaged with. Our minds.

I've been known to say, "you have to start making your memory work for you." What I mean by this is that everyone already has an extremely powerful tool at their disposal. Instead of using our memories to their full potential, many of us are satisfied with forgetting and letting the world pass by. It's like using a Swiss Army knife as a paper weight. The tool itself has many more uses and functions only when open. 

Rather than going down a path exploring the science of memory, instead I'll simply touch on some of its interesting features and uses

The Unconscious Mind and Dreams. They say our other than conscious mind is far more powerful than our conscious mind. The unconscious mind is thought to be constantly processing and storing data and a rapid rate while we are awake. Supposedly, everything we experience is stored in this area of our minds even we can't remember it at all. Learning how to tap into the resources of the unconscious mind is quite difficult. On the other hand, through our dreams we can experience and interact with this reservoir of memories. The unconscious mind is also a ferocious problem solver. Even while asleep your mind is still working. It's no wonder people often advise others to "sleep on it." I often let my dreams sort out the framework of my blog posts and my other creative endeavors.

Experiencing and Remembering are the same to the mind. They say our brains and to some extent our physical bodies react the same way to remembering an event as experiencing it  in real life. This property of the mind gives us an amazing range of control over ourselves. Actors have been known to remember (which to the brain is like reliving) sad events from their personal life to evoke authentic physical and emotional responses on camera. I've used this effect of the mind for a range of applications. For example, by remembering how it was to practice a particular technique for the violin or piano, I'm able to actually build a more solid familiarity and confidence with that technique. Perhaps flying in the face of modern teaching conventions, it seems that you don't always have to practice an instrument to get better at it. In the same vein, pretending is like the combination of dreaming and remembering. By pretending, one can draw from the unconscious mind and one's memories to create imaginary experiences from perceived data that function like real experiences. For this same reason the concept of "play" is so universally cherished. You can experience and even learn important things from pretending and playing (including video games of courses).

Organizing & Categorizing. Like computers that use a multitude of information tags to organize and identify specific pieces of data, we too have a complex organizational system. For any given idea, feeling, or event we experience we add tags to it such as time, space, sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. In Ron White's Memory In A Month program,  White teaches a memory system that was used by the ancient Greeks called loci. By arranging pieces of data in different distinct locations in the mind, the brain is able to organize and recall the data better. To help the process, it's best to attach all the tags as you can to a data entry and exaggerate it. For example, if you needed to remember the name Bill Blocker you might attach a scene to the name of a basketball made of a wadded up dollar bill. As you try to shoot a 3 pointer with this dollar bill ball, you're blocked by none other than Bill Blocker. It may sound strange at first, but it works. We're already conditioned to think in images and remember events in logical order or stories. By making a picture or a story out of the data, you make it easier to recall. 

Stored Memories Outside the Mind. Because we can create associations between our memories and stimulus from our environment, it may seem that we store information externally (outside the mind). We all have developed routines where we can execute highly complex tasks without even thinking. Simply walking is a complex balancing act that we've gotten quite use to. Additionally, when we pull off physical tasks by tapping into this comfortable zone, we refer to it as using muscle memory. I have much of my entire piano repertoire memorized. I can play each song and sing the parts as well. However, when away from a piano, I can't simulate playing the music at all. It's as if my fingers forget what they're doing. But the moment I sit down at a piano, even with my eyes closed, all the music instantly comes back to me. It's as if I've stored half the music in my fingers and the other half in the keys. Such an example shows how connected our memories our to our environments. By storing data "externally" we can process the information that's pertinent to given situation by perceiving the situation. This functionally works very well with video games. In well designed games, players don't have to memorize much. Instead, we can store important information in the level/enemy elements and retrieve this information when it comes.

If we don't learn from our past we're doomed to repeat it. This can only happen if we remember our past in the first place.


What if we remember everything we "learned" in high school. Every experiment, formula, equation, historical event,  vocab word, author, etc. If you could recall all of this information, you would probably feel very smart all the time. 


Memory is tied to learning, and video games are, in essence, self contained teaching environements/teachers. By better understanding how we remember, and how our memories shape us, we can better understand how to teach and develop more powerful video game experiences.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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