In theory, your storage capacity for long-term memories is limitless. It does, however, have a separate type of memory known as working or short-term memory, which quickly fills to capacity and overloads. Working memory is the part of your brain that holds information necessary for you to perform tasks, such as listening to someone speak or remembering what you need to do at work. It has a limited amount of space, about six items, and can be filled in different ways. For example, it can be full of information you read in a book or magazine, or heard on the radio. This information is there only until you forget it.
Your working memory is limited to about six things at once. If you try to remember more than this, you'll soon run out of room for new information and will experience memory loss. People who suffer from Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia lose some of their memory ability because they can no longer keep all the pieces of information they need in mind at one time.
You may wonder how we can remember anything at all with so little room in our brains. The fact is that our minds automatically store certain information in long-term memory when we hear it once. You probably know this if you've ever forgotten something you knew quite well just a few minutes before.
In contrast to short-term memory, long-term memory storage capacity is said to be infinite. It includes anything you can recall that happened more than a few minutes ago. Long-term memory cannot be considered without considering how it is structured. Unlike short-term memory, which requires the presence of neurons to store information, long-term memory does not depend on these cells to remain intact.
Long-term memory consists of multiple systems that work together to preserve experiences for future reference. These systems include semantic networks, episodic memories, and procedural memories. Semantic networks are organized groups of concepts that are associated with one another as a result of learning or experience. For example, someone who has learned some words in English would have access to their meanings when they see them written down. Episodic memories are specific events that take place at a particular time and place. Procedural memories are ways of performing actions that are not dependent on seeing what needs to be done; rather, they are stored as sets of instructions that can be followed later by repetition. For example, someone who has learned how to ride a bicycle might still have access to this memory set of instructions even after years have passed since last riding it.
When an experience is remembered it is usually not just any old thought but rather a combination of thoughts and feelings related to the experience. The part of the brain that stores long-term memories is also responsible for creating emotions.
The capacity of long-term memory is determined by how it is encoded and how many times it has been examined or remembered. Memories are not kept in their original state. Instead, they are stored with slight modifications of their original form. This process allows us to use our memories to make judgments about new information rather than waste time storing everything exactly as it was the first time we saw it.
The two main factors that determine how long a memory will remain in our brain are how well we study it and how often we encounter it during life. The more times we see something, the better we remember it. This is why learning languages is so easy; we can remember vocabulary words that we have read or heard many times because they are embedded in the language itself. Of course, this also means that you cannot learn anything new if you only look at it once.
Our brains are like filing cabinets; they get full of papers that are important to retain. When we need to recall these documents, we can search through our files for the one(s) that match the ones we have now in mind. In this way, we use previous experiences to identify possible matches with new information and then store or memorize them instead of trying to remember all details about each item simultaneously.
While long-term memory appears to have an infinite capacity that lasts for years, short-term memory is fleeting and restricted. Because short-term memory is limited in both capacity and durability, memory retention necessitates the transfer of information from short-term storage to long-term memory. Memory consolidation is the process by which information is transformed from short-term storage into long-term memory.
Infinite capacity is a characteristic of all human memories, including short-term memory. It is estimated that our brains can store about 100,000 pieces of information for just under a second. The number increases depending on how much you use it. For example, if you learn the address of a house you want to buy, this will go into memory with other things you know about that house - such as whether there's a garage or not. If you later need to remember what street name starts with A, your brain won't have to search through all your previous experiences to find it again. Instead, it will pull out the address and load it into memory for quick access next time you need it.
Our brains are also good at forgetting. You might think of yourself as a fairly organized person, but according to neuroscientist Eric Kandel, we forget nearly half of everything we learn. Your brain makes sure that none of these forgotten items end up in long-term memory because that would be impossible without some sort of storage system.