Part of My Why

Making Lasting Memories

How Science and Technology Impact What We Remember

The Science of Making Memories

I recently attended a conference where Jim Kwik, a brain & memory trainer, delivered the opening keynote. He said somethings that I had read about before, and I thought they were really important to share since my job is to help you recall life’s wonderful moments. I’m going to keep this post as brief as possible, but this article does a great job exploring the full topic, if you want to read more.

Types of Memories

Our brains are constantly taking in information- most of which it will process and forget rather quickly. You decide what you are going to focus on and if it is worth trying to remember. Your short term memory is like a 256MB thumb drive- it can only hold about 5-9 “files” and you have about 30 seconds to try to properly encode it before it starts to fade. Yikes!

Long term memory on the other has an infinite capacity, like storing it on the cloud. But, backing it up takes time and you can’t really process anything else on your “computer” while its encoding. Additionally, you have to make a connection or attach significant meaning to the memory in order to make it a long term memory. Going back to the storage analogy- you have to properly name the file and put it in a folder that means something to you.

Must Haves for Long Term Memories

So let’s chat about what we can do to make sure we are properly uploading those memories. Avoid “encoding failure” by following these principles:

    • Motivation
    • Emotion
    • Locations & Associations
    • Undisturbed Processing
    • Patterns & Meaning
    • Conditioning to Familiarity
    • Incarnational Learning

Riding a new ride creates a mix of emotions. Mom and Dad are both there for him- engaging with him, reassuring him in this moment that everything will be great.

boy questions going on ride at seaworld


This is all about intention. You have a reason to want to remember this thing you just learned or experienced. You must now do something intentionally to help you remember. If this is something you are trying to learn, writing it down or visualizing the concept qualifies as taking intentional action to remember it. If this is something you’re able to experience, giving it your FULL attention and recognizing the small sensory details as you experience them is great intention in the moment.


When emotion gets involved in the creation of a memory, you are bringing in the amygdala to join the cerebellum and prefrontal cortex on the memory making team. When this happens, an arousal is linked to the information, making it a stronger memory. Later in life you might find that being in a similar mood as the one that was associated to the moment you recorded will trigger that memory to pop back up (for good or for bad).

Locations & Associations

This principle is all about context- and is why certain places and things can make us feel nostalgic. The article I linked to states, “the more vivid the environment where the memory is created, the more associations you pair with the memory. The more associations you connect to the memory, the more encoded the information is.” That’s probably why Walt Disney World is such a great place to make and recall childhood memories.

Undisturbed Processing

This one right here is why what I do is important to helping you make everlasting memories. I’ve written before about the many problems of wearing both the parent and photographer hat. It’s hard because we are forcing ourselves to multi-task, and the brain cannot multi-task. This means if we are thinking about composing and what might happen next to be ready to make the perfect picture- even if we put down the camera for a minute or two to be in the experience- we aren’t allowing our brains to fully process the experience before we push it onto the next thing. It will not be saved as a long term memory. Even more so, we may not be allowing our children to fully process the memory either because our coming and going from the experience breaks their ability to process it as well.

Patterns & Meaning

These are those fancy techniques that use patterns to create meaning to something we may not be fully motivated to remember. Jim Kwik has a podcast called Kwik Brain that goes over a bunch of these helpful techniques and how to implement them in your daily life to memorize new names, process information for work or school, and to even read faster and comprehend more.

Conditioning to Familiarity

This is one of the hardest and most time-consuming principles to making a long term memory because it requires continuous repetition over a long period of time to work. It’s how many of us eventually learn the names of the people we see on a regular basis, even if there isn’t a motivating factor to remember their names. Or how we eventually learn those annoying jingles that we hear on the radio every morning we drive to work. Back to the article, “the more positive effects associated with the memory or the information, the more likely you are to keep it around. The more you keep it around, the more conditioned it will become internally.”

Incarnational Learning

This is doing something with the information to process it- moving it from head to hands. Most of us are kinesthetic learners, we learn by doing. It creates meaning, emotion, and tangible associations- making use of three other principles we’ve discussed.

Technology's Impact

It’s been said that humans were better at recalling things we heard before the invention of paper gave us the option to write it down. Current technology – handheld computers and cameras- has dulled our ability to remember phone numbers, spell words right the first time, and most importantly shortened our attention spans.  (I hope you made it this far to read this.)

In an effort to capture as many memories as we can in image form, camera phone technology has actually made us less likely to remember that experience. THIS IS IMPORTANT! If we let our technology do the work of capturing the memory (with us making the image), we limit the amygdala’s involvement in processing the memory and make ourselves more susceptible to encoding failure.

People hire a wedding photographer without question because they want everyone there to be able to experience the event. It’s important and it should be remembered to the best of our abilities. The images the professional photographer makes are a backup- things that will help recall the memories- the feelings and emotions of the day. Our daily childhood memories and vacations are just as important. Do not put the responsibility on one person in the family to document it because everyone’s memory will suffer for it.

Ok, I’ll get off my soapbox now. 🙂

How Does Your Child Best Preserve Loving Memories?

This quick Love Language quiz will help you identify how your child best receives acts of love.

If this blog post has inspired you to consider hiring a documentary family photographer to capture the important moments in your life, please reach out to me. I would love to take that responsibility off your hands.