Memory and Cognition

Memory: Analogous to Drawer

In some ways memory is like file drawers where you store mental information. Some drawers are interconnected, some are not. There are some of these drawers we access at times, others are just there, some are totally disjoint from the others, some are so far off place that we cannot even access the data and sometimes we forget which particular drawer has what data.

We cannot remember everything because we pay selective attention to events (human modeling process). That is how we are coded, and it is our programming and capacity both at the same time.

The process of storing a memory (or recalling it) is a series of unconscious processes (or our strategy - these are the programs that run in the background), at times in our preconscious or conscious.

But how do we store it, access it or even decide to forget it?

Things are continuously changing around us, how something remains fresh while others vanish with time?

How do people encode, store and retrieve these information when needed. ?

Have you ever been in a situation where you are not able to remember the name of an old classmate, but you could visualise exactly where he used to sit in the classes? Or maybe sometimes you think that the current situation is similar to what happened in the past, but exactly it's not the scenario. What could explain this?

Case of Simon Reinhard

Simon Reinhard is one of the very best memory athletes in the world. He was the first person ever memorizing a deck of cards in less than 22 seconds. He is currently the holder of the most memory world records. In a task, called “forward digit span” his record is 240 digits. How could someone remember such a list accurately, was Simon deceiving others? Or he has abilities more advanced than the rest of mankind. Scientifically evident Miller’s (1983) magic number decodes memory span of 7+-2 digits in the working memory. On the other hand, people suffer from memory loss or amnesia. What could explain this?


Memory is a cumulative term that has a wide range of abilities: to hold information while working on it (working memory), knowledge of facts of the world (semantic memory), to be able to remember information of one’s life events (episodic memory) and so on. The three key processes involved in memory are encoding, storage and retrieval. Encoding is defined as the initial learning of information; storage refers to maintaining information over time and retrieval is the ability to access information when you need it.

Taking you back to the analog on memory system working like file drawers you may wonder where are these drawers located and are they permanently stored there or are they temporary? Research evidence shows that the areas of the brain called the amygdala (Josselyn, 2010), prefrontal cortex (Craik et al., 1999), hippocampus (Clark, Zola, & Squire, 2000) and cerebellum (Steinmetz, 1999; Green & Woodruff-Pak, 2000) are involved in the storage and processing of memory.

Now we know how our memory is stored and where it gets stored, but what about the retrieval of that stored memory? And what we see and remember is it even real or is it restructured with new details that weren’t there in the previous memory? How can it be distinguished?

There are these thousands of complex patterns that run simultaneously to keep this system intact and working. Everything that we will ever know will only be a part of the actual working as it is constantly evolving too. There are different types of memory we retrieve from time to time, “take a moment to think back on your own life, is there a particular memory that steps out from the others, like of receiving a particular news or an emotional event that you may remember details of”. These types of memory are called flashbulb memories, which may not necessarily be accurate as they are determined by reconstructive processes.

Nonetheless, all other things being equal, distinctive and emotional events are well-remembered. Just as retrieval practice (repetition) enhances accurate memories, so will it strengthen errors or false memories? (McDermott, 2006).

Humans are creative, we are always going beyond the information we are given and recode the information, we automatically make associations and infer from them what is happening. But sometimes we create false memories from our inferences remembering the inferences themselves as if they were actual experiences.

It is like a double sword process with accuracy and inaccuracy of the content that we hold. Sometimes we anchor upon the initial information and ignore the relevant information.

Have you heard the verse “Memories bring back memories bring back … from the song ‘memories’ by Maroon 5, it can be used to understand this concept, of how our memories are all anchored and connected, that is how memories surface automatically. Any emotionally provoking event or stimulus in our environment activates a pattern of neural activity, where certain neurons become active in a particular sequence, which triggers a memory. Research shows that there is a common network of regions associated with the emotional memory and that amount of arousal independently affects the neural activity underlying the effect (Jill D. Waringa & Elizabeth A. Kensinger, 2011) Memories and Modalities

The only way we know the world and its description is through our input channels which is called modality and its finer distinctions, sub modalities. It might be important to understand that memory is coded through modalities (a way or mode) which is Visual (V), Auditory (A), Kinesthetic (K), Olfactory (O) and Gaustatury (G).

Our mind gathers information through our five senses which are visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory and gustatory (VAKOG) which is then processed and coded in memory. All our experiences are the result of energy and chemical senses like Smell and taste which are classified with feelings in human communication.

Each of these modalities receives and processes information and also activates memories to produce behavior. The modalities we use to store our memories give meaning to those memories, by adjusting the modalities of the memory can change how you perceive and respond to it. This is also true for envisioning and imagining future events (Ellecton, 2006).

Modalities gives more precise insight into what people are thinking about and how they are coding their experiences internally (Bavister and Vickers, 2004). “Initially children enter kindergarten as kinesthetic learners; they seem to touch everything as they learn. Meanwhile while entering in second or third grade some students tend to become visual learners. Some students during the late secondary years, mainly females, become auditory learners. Still many adults, especially males, maintain kinesthetic strengths throughout their lives” (Allyn and Bacon, 1993).

Modalities have a strong connection with memories we form. Some tend to remember the visual part of information, some focus more on the auditory part and some give preference to how that information made them feel (More likely to be high in flashbulb memory). Our learning and experiences are based on what is stored in our memory like representations and locations. We all have a natural preference for a particular modality or sensory window, indeed we use all senses in combination but humans prefer one over the other most of the time.

We all have preferences for how we like the information to be presented:

Some like to see what you mean…

Some like to hear the plan…

Some like to feel what the other is talking about…

Based on these preferences we have preferred modalities as follows:

1. Visually Preferred People: For a person with visual modality, appearance is the first idea that strikes in their mind. They tend to visualize everything they see or hear whether while communicating or reading.

2. Auditory Preferred People: These people are talkative and focus more on the phonological aspect of communication. They need a person's reassurance through words.

3. Kinaesthetic Preferred People: A person with kinesthetic modality is expressive through his or her body gesture. They express their love with physical touch like hugs, kisses and cuddles.

Memories and Submodalities

Modalities help us to shape and store the memory with fine details and later help in better recall at times. Is modality all what is there?

Submodalities is the finer distinction of a modality. It changes fine tuning of the information, modality and submodality work together to create the emotion associated with an experience in the past.

How do you know ‘what you believe’ and ‘what you do not believe’?

You code the two different kinds of beliefs with different fine distinctions of submodalities.

Okay let is take a quick activity here :

Take a look at each of these images one after another, notice that I have randomly taken an image off the internet and played with its editing of light and zoom.

Just for your understanding, record how your emotions change as you move from one image to another. Ask yourself where do you feel stronger emotions amongst all of these images. Which of these image do you like the most. Pay attention to what about that image you like.

Did you notice how your emotions keep changing with each of these images - even though they are all about the same event. So what exactly is changing here?

We create meaning by using different submodalities to code our experience. We have finer distinctions for each modality. We could describe a picture as being black and white or colour, or it could also be bright or dim. Sounds could be loud or soft, or coming from a particular direction. Feelings could be in different parts of the body or have different temperatures. Smells could be pleasant or offensive, strong or light. Taste could be sweet or bitter or strong or mild. These finer distinctions are called submodalities and define the qualities of our internal representations. These are based on driver modality and by playing with it you can change the experiences of the event itself.

When we have memory of an event, other things work simultaneously which is representative of the event experienced, be it happy or a traumatic event. Evidence supports that in practice the impact and meaning of a memory is affected more by the sub-modalities used to code it than the actual content. Changing the sub-modalities changes the understanding of the experience (from the past) itself.

Could you think of something that you really don't like to do but have to do on a regular basis whether you like it or not? We as humans somewhere or the other have been in such situations. Would there be a possibility to transform the way you think about that thing you don't like to do so that it becomes something you really enjoy and even look forward to?

The core idea is that if submodalities are made to be varied, we can change the emotions associated with that experience itself.

For example: When a person viewing an image with an emotional association makes the visual image closer and brighter, the intensity of the feeling about the imagined situation changes. Changing some submodalities will make major changes in experience. This coding and editing is different for different people and as we experiment with ours, we will get close to our own driver submodalities (SBM).

Now changing other submodalities (other than Driver or lead SBM) will have very little or no effect. Which submodalities make major changes and which do not vary with each individual. Our fear , anxiety, phobia and beliefs are shaped through the way we organise our memory and give meaning to our experiences (and events).

There is no memory or retentive faculty based on lasting impressions.

What we designate as memory is but increased responsiveness to repeated stimuli.

-Nikola Tesla

For instance, some might like traveling and others are occupied with hodophobia (fear of traveling).

What could describe this?

It is the cognition or interpretation of that cognitive process? We believe it can be modified by the submodalities involved in the event and thus discharging negative energy and irrational belief.

Richard Bandler (1983) co-creator of NLP explicitly began to reveal the structure of submodalities, where he taught how submodality shifts could be used to change habits, beliefs, and create motivation or understanding, and how submodality thresholds could be used to break locked-in patterns like compulsions, or to bring in new changes. Neuro linguistic programming shows that our nervous system responds in a particular way and language creates experience and we code the information in our system in the form of language or using modality and submodality. This concept can be explained through an activity

Activity :

  • Take a few minutes and recall a specific event, it could be a positive or negative event.

  • Now you have a memory of this event in your mind, now put it into words and say a sentence about this event in your preferred language:

  • What did you recall? How does it look to you? Do you hear a sound? What are the beliefs associated with this event?

Now think of the same line as you said earlier, But this time say it out loud in a different language.

Notice what happens to your experience this time as you change the language.

NLP allows us to recognise and enable change and many of the processes in NLP use these submodalities to create transforming change and add new meanings to experiences.

Through this understanding, we can say that our experiences are coded through these submodalities, which eventually form our memory and together contribute to further experiences. And every experience we have is associated with an emotion, so to sum it up, working on manipulating our submodalities can help us change an experience and eventually change the emotion associated with it.

To elaborate on the process, our minds receive information through the senses, whether this information is emotionally impacted depends on our mental association or dissociation from it. We associate by viewing and experiencing an event through our own eyes and bodies for eg, processing it from the perspective of "I see, feel, hear, etc. this event ". We disassociate by taking an "other" perspective, as if we are an observer outside of our bodies for eg. "I'm looking at myself going through this experience."

Associated experiences have a more powerful emotional impact than disassociated experiences. We are attached rather than detached. It's the difference between imagining yourself looking out the front car of a roller coaster as you speed around the track or viewing an image of yourself at a distance taking the ride. Knowing this difference in perspectives can be very useful in understanding phobias and fears or past traumatic experiences. Richard Bandler developed a process to help clients safely confront minor phobias and fears by disassociating and reframing their experience.


Memory works in magical ways, it has a configuration which includes representational systems VAKOG; and then you are able to see the fine distinctions, submodalities which is the driver modality. Communication, memory, modality it’s all connected. Do you know why some are happy and others are grieving the loss they had 6 years ago? If so, why are some people more resilient than others? Does cognition and our belief system have anything to do with it? Or its just melancholy like in the song ‘There is a place’ which goes something like this “there's a time for remembering, time to recall, the trials and triumphs, the fears and the falls, there's a time to be grateful for the moment, the jewels of our memory where loved is our guest”. Do you believe that time heals everything ? Humans believe nothing is permanent, maybe that's the reason for why with time things improve. Nothing is perfect, so does memory. It is an active and reconstructive process.

NLP training shows that if you separate finer distinctions and manipulate them and change the experience of an event itself then it can also change the way we associate the emotion to that experience. Like a story always has multiple threads to it but we see it in our own lens. What if we see it with respect to all perspectives, and thus change the limiting beliefs. NLP Practitioner Course is a programming method that enables therapists to change those limiting beliefs using this process of manipulation, into beliefs and thoughts that empower positive change.


Flashbulb memory : is a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid "snapshot" of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was learned about.

Kinesthetic : relating to a person's awareness of the position and movement of the parts of the body by means of sensory organs (proprioceptors) in the muscles and joints.

Olfactory : The bodily structures that serve the sense of smell.

Gustatory: Concerned with tasting or the sense of taste

Submodalities (SBM) : They are fine distinctions or the subsets of the Modalities (Visual , Auditory , Kinesthetic, Olfactory , Gustatory , and Ad) that are part of each representational system that encode and give meaning to our experiences.

Neuro Linguistic Programming ( NLP)- It is a psychological approach that involves analyzing strategies used by successful individuals and applying them to reach a personal goal. It relates thoughts, language, and patterns of behavior learned through experience to specific outcomes.

Amygdala: It amygdala is a region of the brain primarily associated with emotional processes. The name amygdala is derived from the Greek word amygdale, meaning “almond,” owing to the structure’s almond-like shape. The amygdala is located in the medial temporal lobe, just anterior to (in front of) the hippocampus.

Cerebellum: It is a major structure of the hindbrain that is located near the brainstem. This part of the brain is responsible for coordinating voluntary movements. It is also responsible for a number of functions including motor skills such as balance, coordination, and posture.

Hippocampus: It is a complex brain structure embedded deep into the temporal lobe. It has a major role in learning and memory. It is a plastic and vulnerable structure that gets damaged by a variety of stimuli.

Prefrontal cortex (PFC): It is the cerebral cortex covering the front part of the frontal lobe. This brain region has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour.

This article on 'Memory and Cognition' has been contributed by Deepali Agarwal, who is a Psychology Honors student from Graphic Era Deemed to be University. She is part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP), which is under the leadership and guidance of Anil Thomas. GIRP is an Umang Foundation Trust initiative to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.

She is self driven with keen interest in the field of organizational psychology, child psychology and criminology. Apart from this, she loves to work with, improvise and learn from people from diverse backgrounds.