When you think about it, the fact that you can find your way to work without GPS is fascinating. Of course, you probably don’t think about it after you’ve made the trip the first few times. You just go to work, relying on memory to get you there.
How Does Memory Work?
We have two types of memory. Our short-term memory lets us recall information for a short time, usually fewer than 30 seconds. If you were reading directions to drive to work for the very first time, your short-term memory would hold the name of the next street you needed to turn onto. At least, it would as long as nothing happened to distract you.
To move that information into long-term memory, your brain has to follow a few steps:
- Decide the information is important
- Save it
- Create connections so you can find it again
Your brain decides information is important through a variety of methods. Some are in your control while others aren’t.
The simplest way to make your brain decide certain information is important is to repeat it many times. If you drive yourself to work on the same route every day, you’ll start off reminding yourself every day that you need to turn at a certain street. It won’t take long for your brain to get the message that it needs to remember this information.
How Are Memories Retrieved?
Once it knows to save specific information, your brain creates paths to help you find the information again when you need it. Those paths get stronger or weaker depending on how often they’re used. Once your brain sets off down a specific memory path, it flows through each of the connected memories based on which ones are used the most often.
What does all of this mean for you? Well, if you find yourself arriving at work and don’t remember the drive, you don’t need to worry. You’ve simply followed that mental path so many times your brain can navigate the physical route on autopilot.