Dr. Michelle Miller, Northern Arizona University – How We Remember

Dec 17, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Michelle Miller of Northern Arizona University explains why some types of information are more easily remembered than others.

Michelle Miller is a professor of psychology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her research is generally focused on language and memory, and more specifically, how normal aging affects the ability to produce and comprehend language. Her work has appeared in a number of peer-reviewed journals and she holds a Ph.D. from the University of California Los Angeles.

About Dr. Miller

More on Dr. Miller's research

Dr. Michelle Miller – How We Remember

In my research of memory, I’ve rarely run into anyone who claimed to have a “good memory.” Many people are interested in improving their memory but have limited understanding of how to do that or they just believe that it’s hopeless. Research has shown something profound about human memory—it isn’t there just to absorb mountains of information, but to selectively encode information that will help us survive in our environment. Your bank account number or a new equation you are trying to learn in math class isn’t going to jump out as being the kind of “important” information that we ought to retain. It doesn’t have an emotional kick. 

One kind of memory that seems to give almost everyone difficulties is prospective memory. This is memory is for things we need to do in the future.  For instance, remembering to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home. People tend to forget these kinds of intentions very rapidly, and one theoretical explanation for this is that we rely heavily on cues for memory. In prospective memory, there may be no good trigger or cue. You can try to improve this side of memory through intention, such as when you sit down in the car, think of milk.  But in many situations this can still be dicey, so it’s best to rely on checklists and cell phone alerts. 

Proper names are another common memory issues—we forget a specific name and enter into the state we call “tip of the tongue.” Most scientists agree that the issue here isn’t with losing the knowledge of the person per se, but a temporary inability to access the sounds associated with that knowledge.  
Rather than ruminating on meaningful information about the person—which many people tend to do—running through each letter of the alphabet may trigger the sounds, and cause the name to “pop up” in memory. And if all else fails, remember that this is a problem that becomes common with age, and is more annoying than being any sign of a serious condition.