5 Surprising Ways That Memory Works

Recent studies reveal some surprising insights into memory, including why remembering sometimes leads to forgetting, how memories changes as they are retrieved, and why moving your eyes from side-to-side might help you remember more.

Explore some of the exciting findings from psychological studies performed over the past few years. Learn more about how your memory works and some nifty tricks that might help you remember more.

Remembering some things causes you to forget other things.

How Does memory work
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One 2015 study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience utilized MRI scans to look at how certain memories are suppressed as others are strengthened. The researchers found that recalling some memories led people to forget competing memories. The results suggest that forgetting is not just a passive process, but that the things we choose to remember can also shape the things we forget.

Just revisiting a memory can transform it.

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Memories change over time. Old memories might seem like the dusty, faded childhood photographs while newer memories might seem as vivid as if they just happened moments ago.

According to recent research by scientists at Johns Hopkins University, your memories are transformed each and every time you revisit them. Neurons first encode memories in the hippocampus and cortex, but every time that memory is called up again, a similar but not identical set of neurons becomes activated.

Essentially, the memory becomes re-encoded every time it is remembered, which can result in strengthening, weakening, or even changing the memory depending on which neurons are activated.

A short nap can produce a five-fold improvement in memory.

Taking a nap can improve memory
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A 2015 study published in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory revealed that a short power nap lasting just 45 to 60 minutes led a dramatic improvement in memory retrieval.

Participants who had taken a quick nap performed as well on a task as they had on what immediately after they learned the information. In comparison, those who had remained awake performed much worse on the same memory task. So the next time you need to do well on an important exam, consider squeezing in a quick nap beforehand.

Taking pictures with your phone might worsen your memory for those events.

Taking a picture
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The next time you are snapping pictures of an important event, consider this – researchers have discovered that saving digital information can make it harder to remember those events that you are trying to capture.

In one experiment, participants took a guided tour of a museum and were asked to photograph some objects or merely observe others. The researchers discovered that when participants took photos of objects as a whole, they were less likely to remember details about those objects. Memory was not impaired, however, when they zoomed in at took pictures of different details.

“When people rely on technology to remember for them — counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves — it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences,” explained researchers Linda Henkel of Fairfield University in a press release.

Moving your eyes can improve your memory.

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If you are trying to find a quick trick to boost your memory, researchers suggest that moving your eyes side-to-side for 30 seconds might help. How? Previous research has suggested that these horizontal eye movements increase interaction between the two hemispheres of the brain. This communication between the two sides of the brain plays a significant role in retrieving some kinds of memories.

In one experiment, participants listened to 150 different words that were organized into ten themes. Next, some of the participants were asked to stare straight ahead, some were asked to move their eyes up and down, and some moved their eyes side-to-side.

After completing these eye movements, the participants listened to mixtures of words again, some that they had heard before on the previous list, some that were related to the word themes that they had previously heard, and some that were entirely new.

Surprisingly, those who had engaged in the horizontal eye movements performed much better at identifying which words they had heard before and which words were new. Not only that, but they were also much more adept at figuring out which words matched the themes but were not actually on the original lists.

So, the next time you are taking an exam that requires route memorization, move your eyes side-to-side for about 30 seconds.


Henkel, L.A. (2013). Point-and-shoot memories: The influence of taking photos on memory for a museum tour. Psychological Science, doi: 10.1177/0956797613504438

Parker, A. & Dagnall, N. (2007). Effects of bilateral eye movements on gist based false recognition in the DRM paradigm. Brain and Cognition, 63(3), 221-225. 

Reas, E. (2013). Important new theory explains where old memories go. Scientific American. 

Studte, S., Bridger, E., & Mecklinger, Axel. (2015). Nap sleep preserves associative but not item memory performance. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 120, 84-93. doi:10.1016/j.nlm.2015.02.012

Wimber, M., Alink, A., Charest, I., Kriegeskorte, N., & Anderson, M. C. (2015). Retrieval induces adaptive forgetting of competing memories via cortical pattern suppression. Nature Neuroscience. doi:10.1038/nn.3973.

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