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How Memory Works

The Dual Process Theory of Cognition

What is memory?

Memory is the retention of information over time - and it is an essential component of our lives. But little of us understand how it really works! In this article, we’ll be going over the dual process theory of cognition.

The two systems

Whenever you learn a new skill, you have to make use of an active analytical process, whilst staying aware of every single movement you make. In other words, you have to consciously think about the actions you are taking and why you are taking those actions - it is cognitively demanding.

Following a large number of repetitions, performing the same skill becomes more intuitive with less conscious thinking required - this will eventually get to a point where you can perform this skill nearly unconsciously, whilst performing other actions simultaneously.

Psychologists thus theorise that there are two main processes behind certain behaviour and cognition:

  • System 1:rapid, automatic and unconscious thought - typically memorization

  • System 2: slower, intentional, and effortful thought - typically analysis / critical thinking

These two systems are interconnected: although critical thinking is predominately reliant on system 2, it also requires system 1 for the recollection of knowledge.

How is memory linked to any of this?

Three main processes in memory: encoding, storage, and recall

1. Encoding: sensory information is taken in, processed, and stored in the brain.

  • Info is changed during this process to improve storage of memory

  • Four methods: visual encoding, acoustic encoding, semantic encoding, and tactile encoding

2. Storage: the storing of information in the brain

  • includes how long info is retained in the brain

  • Info is typically stored as short term memory (constant recollection + rehearsal required to maintain short-term memories)

  • Spaced repetition can convert short term memories into long term memories

  • More info can be stored in long term memories than short term memories

3. Recall: accessing information stored within the brain

  • Exact process is still unknown, but short term memories and long-term memories have different processes for retrieval

  • With short-term memories, you have to recall the memories in the order remembered; with long-term memories you rely on associations

The importance of sleep in the stage of encoding memories

It goes without saying that many of us don’t have a regular sleep schedule - however, sleep is extremely important: especially for the process of memory formation. When the body goes into rest, the hippocampus and neocortex communicate with each other and relay events that occurred during the day, helping to consolidate memories within the neocortex.


Whenever we recall memories, a specific group of neurons within our brain are activated. Little is known about the true nature of this process: however, we hope that this introduction into the nature of memory will convince you to maintain a regular sleep schedule!



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