Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO
Retired Fire Chief and Web Master for Situational Awareness Matters

Your brain has multiple memory systems. One of the most important for first responders is declarative memory, which is the memory of those things you can declare as facts such as the color of your fire engine or the score of last night’s hockey game. To develop strong memory and recall foundations of situation awareness, it is critical that first responders be able to store, remember and recall critical information. This article discusses how you store knowledge, a vital component to developing and maintaining situational awareness.

Our environment is chocked full of stimuli sights, sounds, touch, tastes and feel. Our senses are bombarded with a ridiculous amount of sensory input. What gets stored into memory (and what doesn’t) is only partially under your control.

Encoding
The stimuli you encounter is sent from your sensory organs (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin) into your brain via electrical impulses. Some of this information is within your conscious awareness. Some is not. The information within your awareness is said to reside (temporarily) in your working memory sometimes called short-term memory.

Research has revealed the desktop of your working memory is not very big. For the average person, it can store about seven pieces of unrelated information (give or take two) and the information doesn’t stay there long. If something isn’t done to convert the short-term memory into a long-term memory within 30 seconds, the information is subject to be forgotten. Information gets into long-term memory stores through encoding.

Effortful Encoding
There are certain things in your life you commit to memory intentionality. You want to remember your home address, the names of loved ones, important birthdays and anniversaries, etc. This important information is stored using repetition, emotion and rehearsal. You know, with confidence, the information will need to be recalled and may even understand the potential consequences if you are not able to recall it (such as forgetting an anniversary). You commit this information into our long-term memory stores.

There are a variety of ways to aid effortful encoding. Some examples include: writing the information down; using repetition (being physically exposed to the information multiple times or through mental rehearsal); and association tying new information to previously existing information (i.e., you meet someone for the first time and their first name is the same as your father so you remember them by associating them to your father).

Automatic Encoding
Much of what your brain stores, however, is actually outside your conscious awareness. Of course, you don’t know this because, well, it is outside your conscious awareness. Your senses can take in, process and store information that you didn’t even know was happening. Of course, paying attention to something vastly increases the chances of storage. However, some of what are not paying attention to is also stored into memory. This is non-declarative memory. One example is the muscle memory of how to perform certain tasks (e.g., how to drive a car or how to ride a bicycle).

Magic Knowledge
When you recall what you have remembered using effortful (or purposeful) encoding, you’re not surprised. In fact, it can be very frustrating when you cannot recall what you know you once knew. However, much of what you know was never purposefully taught to you and you never stored it with purposeful intent. Yet, you know it. In science, this is known as tacit knowledge (unconscious knowledge). For the sake of this article, I’ll call it magic knowledge. It’s the knowledge you possess that you were unaware of.

The outward manifestation of tacit knowledge is intuition sometimes called the gut feeling you may experience in certain situations. Your magic knowledge is a critical component in the formation of your situational awareness. When operating in stimulus-rich, dynamically changing environments (e.g., emergency scenes) you are bombarded by information, some is noted consciously, much is not. Your brain uses both the conscious awareness and tacit knowledge to help you comprehend what is happening.

About the Author
Dr. Gasaway is widely considered to be one of the nation’s leading authorities on situational awareness and decision making processes used by first responders. In addition to more than 30 years in the fire service, including 22 years as a fire chief, Dr. Gasaway has a second passion: Uncovering and applying research in brain science for the benefit of first responders. His website, Situational Awareness Matters (www.SAMatters.com), has enjoyed more than a million visits since its launch in October 2011.