Human Memory

Your constantly-updated definition of Human Memory and collection of videos and articles

What is Human Memory?

There are many types of memory, notably short and long-term memory. User experience (UX) designers cater to the limits of memory to make products easier to use.

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All UX designers must know how memory works and how to design around it. This is particularly true for information visualization designers, who must ensure that the viewer readily understands their work for it to be immediately helpful, which results in a much more visually digestible overall user experience.

Information architecture and clean layouts also help users identify and remember the essential pieces of information, a crucial element of interaction design.

Types of Memory

Human memory is a powerful mental process that has many implications in life and how you experience things, from remembering meaningful events to enabling you to execute tasks and achieve goals.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

In essence, human memory has three facets: sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. The designer is most concerned with the first two types and strategically designs to appeal to short-term and sensory memory.

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Designers often design around "Task load," the amount of information or choices a person can process simultaneously, also called "working memory."

One of the most valuable pieces of information about task load is that humans have trouble remembering and engaging with anything with more than seven (give or take 2) task items. Designers consider this memory limitation when presenting information and wireframing products to provide the most memorable and efficient user experience.

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Types of Mnemonics

Mnemonics is the science of memory, and people use a few interesting mnemonic devices to "hack" our brain's programming to improve their memories. The brain is naturally unreliable at remembering abstract things like numbers, dates or concepts. However, it is naturally very good at remembering stories and remembering spaces.

The first method is to turn abstract information into a story that is easier to remember, usually through memorable phrases that tell a short story. One common English-language mnemonic phrase to remember the colors of the rainbow is:

"Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain."

It helps us remember the following:

"Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet."

The other method dates back to ancient Greece, called "the method of loci." These ancient thinkers noticed that it was much easier to remember the location of physical objects than abstract thoughts. However, with training, they could create a way to activate "spatial memory" to memorize abstract concepts or facts.

They developed a technique called a "mind palace," where a person creates an imaginary version of a space and populates it with object versions of abstract thoughts.

For example, a person might imagine their childhood bedroom and place a memory on a shelf in that imaginary bedroom. To remember the memory again, they imagine the bedroom and look on the shelf for the memory.

There are memory competitions, and memory champions use techniques that combine or adapt this concept for more impressive feats of memory, like memorizing the order of a randomly shuffled deck of cards.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

How to Boost User Memory

For designers, this means we have a few ways to improve the memory of our users.

  • Employ storytelling to make information more easily digestible and memorable. 

  • Have clean, logical menus and a visual hierarchy that is easy to understand and scan.

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  • Design for recognition vs. recall or interfaces with items people can quickly identify instead of recalling them from scratch.

  • Leverage spatial memory. Augmented and virtual reality, in particular, can easily activate spatial memory to improve the amount of information users can store.

Learn More About Human Memory

Watch journalist and US memory champion Josh Foer's Ted talk, Feats of memory anyone can do.

For more on Josh Foer's Article on Mnemonic methods, read Forget Me Not: How to Win the U.S. Memory Championship.

See how ancient Greeks used Mnemonics in Method of Loci: Ancient Mnemonic Technique Used by Greeks and Romans Effectively Double Brain's Memory Storage Skills.

Questions related to Human Memory

What is core memory in the human brain?

Core memory isn't a scientific term in neuroscience or mental health. The concept originated from Pixar's movie "Inside Out." Core memory represents significant life moments and memories that hold more emotional value. Although not a real psychological phenomenon, core memories have gained cultural popularity. People often use the term to describe impactful life experiences. 

Discover more about how memory shapes our lives in our article How We Use Long-Term Memory and How it Informs Us Who We Are.

What is human memory in psychology?

In psychology, human memory is the mind's ability to store, retain, and recall information. It's a complex process that involves acquiring, storing, and retrieving data. Psychologists study three main types: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Sensory memory holds information briefly from our senses.

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Short-term memory keeps information for a short period, like a mental notepad.

Long-term memory stores information for longer, from personal experiences to learned knowledge.

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Understanding these types helps psychologists and designers create more effective learning and user experiences.

What is the memory capacity of the human brain?

Due to its vast nature, we can't quantify the human brain's memory capacity. Scientists often compare it to digital storage. They estimate the storage could be around 2.5 petabytes or 2.5 million gigabytes. That is the equivalent of 8.5 years of 24/7, full HD video recording. This means your brain can hold a massive amount of information.

However, the brain doesn't work like a computer. It prioritizes and stores information based on relevance and frequency of use. This huge capacity allows you to store a lifetime of memories and knowledge, from everyday facts to personal experiences.

What are the 4 types of memory?

There are four main types of memory in the human brain: sensory, short-term, working, and long-term memory.

Sensory memory holds information from your senses for a brief moment.

Short-term memory keeps information for a short duration, like a temporary holding space.

Working memory processes and manipulates information held in short-term memory. It retains information for longer than short-term memory and helps you with reasoning and decision-making.

Long-term memory stores vast amounts of information for extended periods, from personal experiences to learned facts. Watch the video below, where Alan Dix discusses long-term memory in more detail.

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These types interact and contribute to your overall memory function. They play a crucial role in learning and recalling information.

What is the capacity of human memory?

The human memory has immense capacity, often linked to an ocean's depth and breadth. Unlike computers, the brain doesn't store data in bytes but through connections and associations. Every new experience or piece of information creates new connections. This network of connections grows as you learn and experience more. 

Your brain filters and prioritizes this information. It focuses on essential or frequently used information. The brain can store astonishing data, but we don't know the exact limit. It reflects the richness and complexity of human experiences and knowledge.

Is human memory important for UX design?

Human memory significantly impacts UX (User Experience) design. Designers must grasp how people remember and process information. This enhances information visualization by making images that are easier to remember. Awareness of human memory also leads to more effective, user-friendly products. Key considerations include the appropriate use of short-term and sensory memory, along with reliance on recognition rather than recall. (Recognition reduces the demands on long-term memory.) Such designs ensure users easily remember and navigate essential features. 

Effective UX design helps users develop strong, intuitive memories of product use. Using memory-friendly designs, UX designers enhance product accessibility, enjoyment, and efficiency. Thus, a deep understanding of human memory becomes the basis of successful UX design.

This concept aligns with narrative sketching and drawing principles. The video, discussing the basics of visual representation and memory, complements this understanding of UX design and human memory interaction.

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What is human memory in HCI?

In HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), human memory refers to how users process, store, and recall information while interacting with computers. It's vital for designing interfaces that are easy to use and remember. 

HCI focuses on matching computer systems with human cognitive capabilities. This includes considering short-term and long-term memory in design.

Designers ensure interfaces align with how users naturally remember tasks and information. They aim for designs that help users easily recall how to use a system without confusion. 

Understanding human memory in HCI leads to more intuitive and user-friendly technology. For a deeper insight, consider Alan Dix's video on short-term memory in HCI. 

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How many GB is human memory?

You may find estimating human memory in gigabytes (GB) difficult. The brain stores information differently than a computer. It uses networks of connections, not digital bytes. Scientists suggest the capacity might be around 2.5 petabytes, equivalent to 2.5 million gigabytes. They did a rough estimate. 

The brain's storage focuses on connections and experiences more than a quantifiable byte count. The comparison highlights the vast capacity of our memory despite its different functioning from digital storage.

How long can the human brain remember?

The human brain can remember information for varying lengths of time, depending on the type of memory. Short-term memory holds information for seconds to a minute. Working memory retains information for 15 to 30 seconds, used during tasks. 

Long-term memory can keep information for years, even decades. This includes personal experiences, knowledge, and skills. Factors like attention, repetition, emotional impact, and relevance to the individual influence how long the brain retains information. Some memories last a lifetime, especially those with vital emotional or personal significance. 

Where to learn more about human memory?

  • Perception and Memory in HCI and UX Course: This comprehensive course offers insights into human perception and memory. You find them valuable to create effective user interfaces. It covers the role of perception in interaction, the relationship between sensation and perception, and the intricacies of designing for memory. 

  • HCI (Memory) Video by Alan Dix: This video provides a concise overview of human memory in the context of HCI. Alan Dix discusses the various types of memory and their importance in designing user interfaces. 

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Literature on Human Memory

Here’s the entire UX literature on Human Memory by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Human Memory

Take a deep dive into Human Memory with our course Information Visualization .

Information visualization skills are in high demand, partly thanks to the rise in big data. Tech research giant Gartner Inc. observed that digital transformation has put data at the center of every organization. With the ever-increasing amount of information being gathered and analyzed, there’s an increasing need to present data in meaningful and understandable ways.

In fact, even if you are not involved in big data, information visualization will be able to help in your work processes as a designer. This is because many design processes—including conducting user interviews and analyzing user flows and sales funnels—involve the collation and presentation of information. Information visualization turns raw data into meaningful patterns, which will help you find actionable insights. From designing meaningful interfaces, to processing your own UX research, information visualization is an indispensable tool in your UX design kit.

This course is presented by Alan Dix, a former professor at Lancaster University in the UK. A world-renowned authority in the field of human-computer interaction, Alan is the author of the university-level textbook Human-Computer Interaction. “Information Visualization” is full of simple but practical lessons to guide your development in information visualization. We start with the basics of what information visualization is, including its history and necessity, and then walk you through the initial steps in creating your own information visualizations. While there’s plenty of theory here, we’ve got plenty of practice for you, too.

All open-source articles on Human Memory

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