You are bombarded with information every waking moment. Once selected, some information passes from immediate memory – that is, what you can sense – into short-term or holding memory. Finally, a small amount of the original information makes it to permanent long-term memory. The final move to long-term memory is what we call learning.

Capturing information

You obtain information through your five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Imagine yourself watching a television program about your favorite hobby. You see and hear the information. You receive this information in an auditory manner (you hear it) and visually (you see it). These delivery methods, using only two of your five senses, are how the majority of people believe information is taught and learned. The truth is that a great deal of information is conveyed to you through your other senses: smell, taste, and touch. Olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) sensations are more rarely used in formal learning activities than hearing and sight. However, people rely extensively on these senses in the home and at work (detecting smoke, gas leaks, cooking, and so on).

Your sense of touch also tells you a great deal about the world around you. You use it to check a child’s temperature, the fineness of your handiwork or the car’s vibration. Your sense of touch is intricately involved in your kinesthetic (motor) skills with which you write, learn a new hobby, drive, get dressed, and many, many other physical activities. Some emotional information is communicated through touch, such as a warm, loving hug.

Making memories

Imagine yourself at an elegant party. People are talking, dishes and utensils are clinking, and music is playing softly in the background. Soft candlelight illuminates silk-covered furnishings while the aroma of dinner fills the air. All of these impressions saturate your five senses, which transfer as much information as they can to the brain via what is called the sensory store. These fleeting sensations remain less than a seconds before the majority of the sensations are lost and only a small subset is passed on to short-term or working memory (STM). The information is lost within 15 to 30 seconds if not selected for closer consideration. If you were not paying attention to a conversation, you could reconstruct a recent comment if asked within this 15 to 30 second. However, after this brief interval of time, you must begin to organize and rehearse the information you want to store in long-term memory (LTM). The process of learning new information does not stop when we go to sleep. Recent research indicates that sleep is essential to the formation and efficient storage of memories. As we sleep, the brain appears to replay the activities of the day, reactivating old and activating new brain cell connections. With proper encoding and retrieval strategies, information that is stored in LTM is considered relatively permanent because it can be recalled years later.