Last month we talked about cognition, or the mental processes of thinking, remembering, judging, and problem solving that occur in our brain. One of the processes, “remembering”, or memory, is a critical aspect for learning.
Educational psychologists define memory as the ability to store and retrieve information in our brain. Information from our five senses enters into our central nervous system which then stores the things we have sensed. Memory is divided into several parts such as short term memory, long term memory, and storage and retrieval systems. Information flows through our brains through our nerve cells and some researchers believe that the melding of two neurons is actually what creates the memory.
Short term memory is stored in the brain for about one-half of a second. This is why children have a hard time remembering directions with multiple steps, especially when only one of the senses is used. Let’s say you tell your child to go get a pencil and put it on the table. By the time a child goes to find the pencil, over one-half of a second has passed so it isn’t uncommon for the second step “put it on the table” to have left the short term memory. If you use visual and auditory directions such as holding up a pencil and putting it on the table as you ask for the child to complete the task, there is a higher likelihood that the child will remember both steps because you are using two sensory channels. Another strategy is to have the child repeat the directions to you. Again, two modalities are used, saying and hearing. As time goes on and the child becomes used to following two step directions, you can move to only one modality. But in directions that are more difficult, using more than one sense will help the child’s short term memory.
Long term memory is a more involved process because it requires us to make sense of the information so that our brains know where to store it. Then we have to store it in a place with related concepts. Finally we have to be able to retrieve the information when we need it. Consider that you are teaching your child colors. First, the child needs to understand that you are talking about a color. They have to have a conceptual framework in their brain that understands what “color” is, how you can tell color, how you know which color is which, and many more foundational concepts. Then, your child has to be able to retrieve similar concepts about color and link them to the new concept. Finally, when you ask again, your child has to know how to find that information in the brain.
So, if you say, “show me a red apple”, your child has to know what an “apple’ is and what “red” is. They have to be able to retrieve the prior information they know about the words “apple” and “red”. All of this information is stored in their long term memory. Then they have to determine that you want them to hand, point or in some other way “show’ you the red apple.
Last week, I was with my great niece. She is eighteen months old and her brain is alive with cognitive processing. As she tried to open a cracker package, I watched her look at her brother who was also opening one, then try it herself. She pulled and pulled on the wrapper. She stuck her finger under the edge of the wrapper. And, voila, she opened the wrapper and ate the cracker. When she tried the next one, she opened it quicker. She had used her memory to recall how she had done it the first time.
We have all learned this way, using our past experience (memories) to do things more fluidly and accurately the next time we have to do it. When you think about all that happens in a mere split second, the intricacy of the human brain in regard to memory is something that is absolutely phenomenal.
Mary Rockey, Ph.D., BCBA is the Director of Pupil Service at Randolph Central School.