7.2 Basic Memory Tasks: Recognition, Recall & Relearning
Learning is great. It’s important to try to learn from new information, new skills, and new experiences. Unfortunately, whatever you learned is basically meaningless if you can’t remember it. Memory is a very important function within our brains; it allows us to store and retrieve the massive amounts of information we encounter throughout our lives. There are a few basic ways that our minds can do this. Each task involved in memory can help us retrieve or retain information in different ways. Don’t forget that.
When your mind learns something new, it commits that information to memory and then basically forgets about it. That information is not directly relevant, so it stays buried in the memory until such time as it is needed again. The process of bringing back information from the memory is called memory retrieval. This is how you remember things, but the act of retrieval is not always easy. The longer information goes without being used, the more likely it is that pieces of it will be forgotten. So, the mind relies on two basic methods of retrieval to try to bring back as much information as possible.
The first form of memory retrieval is recognition. Memories retrieved this way are identified by the brain based on some external clue. Basically, the mind recognizes that something is familiar, and is then able to retrieve the memory based on that association. Imagine that you want to go back to a great little restaurant you once tried, but you can’t remember what it was called. So, you take a drive down the street and look for a restaurant that looks familiar. You are trying to get your brain to recognize the physical appearance of the building. The memory is there, in your mind, but it’s incomplete. However, a visual cue will help fill it in.
Recognition is generally an unconscious process, something our brain is constantly doing to find contextual clues surrounding us that can help retrieve relevant memories. However, it can be a more conscious action as well. If you’ve ever taken a multiple-choice test and realized you didn’t directly remember the right answer, what did you do? You went with the answer that looked most familiar. Ideally, part of your mind recognized the correct term within the list.
The other main form of memory retrieval is recall. Recall describes retrieving a memory without any additional clues. It’s simply remembering, drawing information out of the memory banks and using it. Recall can be improved through study habits and practices of learning. The more consistently that the mind is forced to recall information, the easier it becomes to retrieve that information without effort. This is why some pieces of information, such as your pet’s name, are just automatic. You don’t have to think about it, you simply remember. That information has been recalled so many times that the brain knows exactly where to go to find it.
Sometimes, however, a memory has been too neglected for the brain to retrieve it. It can’t be recalled, and even visual clues aren’t enough to spark recognition. Still, there’s a chance that the brain is aware of the existence of that memory, even if it can’t find it. The mind knows that the information was once there. If this happens, then being exposed to the information again will prompt the process of relearning.
Have you ever tried to remember something you once learned many years ago, maybe a president’s name or a mathematical equation? You know that you learned this once, you know the information’s in there somewhere, but you just can’t seem to remember. When you learn that information again, the mind is much more likely to create a stronger memory around it. Then, the next time you need to remember William Howard Taft or that slope = (y1-y2)/(x1-x2), your brain is more likely to be able to recall or recognize that information. Relearning is actually a different process than learning. That’s something worth remembering.
Our minds must deal with a lot of information, so they’ve come up with a few ways to store and then find information as memories. The basic system of recovering memories is called memory retrieval. There are two main ways for the mind to do this. Recognition involves using external clues to help the mind find and identify information. This is useful if the memory is incomplete or partially forgotten. Recall describes the ability of the mind to automatically retrieve information without additional context or clues. Sometimes, information is forgotten, but the mind is still aware that it was once there. In these cases, relearning occurs once the mind is exposed to the information again. This is a different process than learning, and is much more likely to form a strong memory that can be recognized or recalled later. Through these systems, the mind is able to remember all the important information it needs. Don’t forget that.