When we try to remember something, we usually concentrate on the act of recovering a past experience or a thought or something else that happens before. In other words: we make an effort to pull up the information from the swamp of the oblivion of our mind. We usually pay particular attention to the present moment when we need to remember something, it is most unlikely that we think about how to recover any information at the moment that we learn it for the first time.

In a previous article [1] I used the metaphor of the reporter (in analogy to the moment of learning) and the editor (in a similar moment of re-enactment) to introduce a distinction between three phases: encoding, storage, and retrieval. If the manners in which we encode information match those of retrieval, the memory is undoubtedly the strongest and most accurate. This principle is called transfer-appropriate processing and «shows that memory performance is enhanced if the type of task at encoding matches the type of task at retrieval» [2].

The stage of retrieval is important since most of the errors we commit when we try to remember are mistakes and oversights of retrieval: «The process of retrieval is extremely important because most of our memory failures are retrieval failures. These retrieval failures occur when the information is “in there,” but we can’t get it out» [3]. Precisely for this reason the coding phase is strategically central. If the information is well coded and coded strategically, once the strategy is well assimilated, it is possible to use the same procedures for storing a lot of different memories. This principle is the basis of all the mnemonics: the same strategy for many different attempts to remember.

The retrieval in the mnemonic way (i.e. not in the mere subconscious learning or learning not guided by principles and effective strategies), always starts from the encoding phase. In other words: each storage technique must also be a technique for information retrieval. There are some elements that can be considered in order to close the loop before moving on to the specific techniques of memorizing and learning: activation level; the attention to clues and suggestions; pertinence of the clues; the strength and intensity of the clues; two or three different clues to be connected to a single memory; good encoding semantics of the information; contextualizing the single memory into an episode, or in a situation, or in a real and/or imagined place.

Activation level

Each memory has within itself a 'mnemonic charge', or elements that can make it more or less easily recoverable. «According to this idea, each memory has an internal state of its own, reflecting how “excited” or “active” it is, a state referred to as the memory’s activation level» [4]. The activation depends in large part on the associations that the memory trace can have with other tracks (connections between ideas and/or images and suggestions that refer to the ‘target memory’, i.e. the specific thought/word/concept to remember). The higher the number of the connections, the more they are cognitively strong, the more the memory will have a high activation level.

Another important element to be taken into account is the attention to clues and suggestions. We must pay attention to all those elements that can directly connect to the target memory to recall. In this case, it’s very important to understand the pertinence of the clues. If we have to remember a concept, it is better if we think of it by connecting it to a word that has an assonance with it than simply forming an image of the concept in itself. The assonance could be a good clue for the concept rather than a simple representation since we represent concepts constantly when we think. On the contrary, in ordinary thought, concepts are not constantly linked with other words through assonance. So the latter is appropriate clues.

But to be good, clues must be strong and intense, in this way the connections between target words and memories can make more resistance to falling into oblivion. For example, a name is certainly appropriate to the person who has that name. The word “Ann” is surely appropriate for that person that I met recently named “Ann”. The word is appropriate, but it is a weak clue since imagination doesn’t find any similitude between the name and the face, nothing in the face recalls the word “Ann”. But, if the first time I meet Ann, I represent a mental picture about her and a friend of mine called Ann nestled together, I build a solid foothold for my memory. A target memory is more easily recoverable if linked with it there are more than one clue.

Two or three suggestions to strengthen the memory

Insert something we want to remember in a situation, in a skit or in a place where something happens, means to connect things together coherently arranged between them. The recovery of one of them also facilitates the recovery of the others. The information to remember must always be well coded, that is: it must be well understood. Otherwise, without good encoding semantics, the memory will always be weak and unstable. The coding strategies determine those of recovery and the more we are able to diversify the first, the better the chance we have of reaching the memory through the second. A general conclusion can be drawn from the foregoing: to develop a good strategy of learning we have to pay attention to the episodic memory of the cognitive content that we want to own.

Contextualizing memories implies a gradual improvement in performance, it produces a mnemonic cognitive integrated system of mental images that it is helpful for memory. Sometimes, when we cannot recall a thing, it can be useful to circumscribe the context where the thing is. To give an example, I take a case known to everyone. When we are at our house, sometimes it happens that we move from room to room – i.e. from kitchen to living room – to do something. When we get to the living room we do not remember what we went to do there, so if we come back to the kitchen suddenly we remember the thought that we had there and the reason that we decided to go into the living room [5] . It’s the circumstances, the places that help us remember the things that in those contexts (whatever they are: physical or social) have taken place.

Ultimately, although most of the effort falls on the retrieval phase, we have to consider that the encoding phase is that strategically most important. It is in the coding phase that we can consciously establish the criteria to retrieve the information in the future.

[1] For this article the referring text is a work that I published in italian: Metafora e memoria - Strutture semantiche e processi di apprendimento, memorizzazione e studio, Libri liberi, Florence, 2015
[2] B. Goldstein B., Cognitive psychology, Thomson-Wadsworth, Belmont, 2008, p. 200.
[3] B. Goldstein B., Cognitive psychology, Thomson-Wadsworth, Belmont, 2008, p. 215.
[4] See Baddeley, M.W. Eysenek, M. Anderson, Memory, New York, Psychology press, 2015, p.199. See also: «Although levels-of-processing theory is no longer the central focus of memory research that it was in the 1970s, its enduring contribution is the idea that memory is affected by the way information is programmed into the mind. This is illustrated by (1) how memory is affected by forming connections with other information, (2) whether information to be remembered is generated by the person, and (3) how information to be remembered is organized», Goldstein B., Cognitive psychology, Thomson-Wadsworth, Belmont, 2008, p. 202.
[5] See Baddeley, M.W. Eysenek, M. Anderson, Memory, New York, Psychology press, 2015, p. 205.