Memory Process & Changing The Brain

Misconceptions about memory and learning, although debunked through research, are still prevalent within society. The three statements shared below, often associated with learning and memory, reference a vessel, fire, and recording devices. As educators, it is important to be able to discuss memory formation, the memory process, and memory consolidation with students to mitigate misconceptions.

  • The mind is a vessel to be filled.

  • Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

  • Human memory works much like a digital recording device or video camera in that it accurately records the events individuals have experienced.


Memories are foundational to cognition and cognitive development, to our sense of self, our knowledge, our thoughts, our emotions, and our behavior. Advancements in research, neuroscience, and technology provide new insight on the biological bases of memory formation. “In order to form memories, the brain must somehow wire an experience into neurons so that when these neurons are reactivated, the initial experience can be recalled” (The Harvard Gazette, 2020). Memory is dynamic and is stored across different, interconnected regions of the brain. According to Queensland Brain Institute (2018):

“Memory is the reactivation of a specific group of neurons, formed from persistent changes in the strength of connections between neurons. But what allows a specific combination of neurons to be reactivated over any other combination of neurons?

The answer is synaptic plasticity. This term describes the persistent changes in the strength of connections – called synapses – between brain cells. These connections can be made stronger or weaker depending on when and how often they have been activated in the past. Active connections tend to get stronger, whereas those that aren’t used get weaker and can eventually disappear entirely.”

Hence, the well-known statement: Neurons that fire together wire together (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Developing Brain

Neurons that fire together wire together on a neural networ,

In exploring memory and the biology of memory formation, Kandel, Dudai, and Mayford (2014) share that explicit (declarative) memory includes “facts and events, people, places, and objects” while implicit (nondeclarative) memory, includes “perceptual and motor skills.” Kandel, Dudai and Mayford (2014) state that explicit memory in humans requires the hippocampus and adjacent cortex as well as involves conscious awareness while implicit memory “does not require conscious awareness and relies mostly on other brain systems: namely, the cerebellum, the striatum, the amygdala.” It is important note that “memory storage is not the result of a linear sequence of events that culminates in an indelible, long-term memory” as shared by Kandel, Dudai and Mayford (2014). They describe memory storage as “the dynamic outcome of several interactive processes: encoding or acquisition of new information, short-term memory, intermediate-term memory, consolidation of long-term memory, maintenance of long-term memory, and destabilization and restabilization of memory in the course of retrieving, updating, and integrating a given memory with other memories.”

So, how do we form memories?

The memory process has three stages: (a) encoding, (b) storage, and (c) retrieval (Melton, 1963) (see Figure 2, Queen’s University). Attention and consolidation are both critical to the memory. According to Chun and Turk-Browne, (2007), “Attention and memory cannot operate without each other.” Just as important, it is through memory consolidation that new information which has been encoded is stabilized in the “storage of enduring memories.” (McGaugh, 2019).

McDermott ad Roediger (2021), define these three stages of memory as follows:

  • Encoding: The initial experience of perceiving and learning events.

  • Storage: The stage in the learning/memory process that bridges encoding and retrieval; the persistence of memory over time.

  • Retrieval: The process of accessing stored information.

Figure 2

How do we form memories? Queen’s University

Memory process map

Understanding memory process is critical for educators to support teaching and learning. According to McDermott ad Roediger (2021), “Every experience we have changes our brains.” Therefore, educators have the unique opportunity within their courses to design content, presentations, activities, and assessments to engage students in experiences that truly change the brain. The question to ask is: What’s in your courses? Learn more about how INTERACT123 can support your work with engaging students in experiences that support learning, memory, and changing the brain. Dr. Kristen Betts