Michelle Miller, Northern Arizona University – Memory Encoding

Michelle MillerThe human brain is exceptionally complex.

Michelle Miller, a professor of psychological sciences at Northern Arizona University, is working to decode how our brains encode information.

Michelle D. Miller is Director of the First Year Learning Initiative and Professor of Psychological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of the book Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Dr. Miller’s research focuses on language and memory. Specifically, she has studied how normal aging affects the ability to produce and comprehend language, language production in brain-injured individuals, and how people produce and comprehend descriptions of interpersonal violence, such as crime reports published in the mass media. Dr. Miller also has interests in applied cognitive psychology, particularly how different pedagogical strategies affect student comprehension and retention of material in the social and natural sciences. Dr. Miller was honored to become one of NAU’s President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellows in 2011.

Memory Encoding


Of all the things our minds and brains do, memory may be the most important thing. There are many factors that determine what we’ll remember and what we will forget in any given situation, but a major driver is attention.

The more researchers seek to understand how memory works, the more they realize that it’s hard to even separate memory systems from attentional systems.

This is especially true for learning new information, a process called encoding.

Many theorists believe that encoding something new is unlikely without some degree of focused attention.

And this capacity for focused attention is fairly narrow, so that you can really apply it only sequentially and to a very limited number of items.

Strictly speaking, the brain can multitask, but most of the things we process simultaneously are those that don’t require focused attention.

 So memory is greatly improved when we focus, and yet, many of us kid ourselves about just what we can manage with our limited attention, and we tend to see ourselves as exceptional when it comes to these limitations.

In my current work, I’m attempting to define some of these key misconceptions we have – such as, that we can learn passively “by osmosis,” or that some people are just exceptional at being able to juggle lots of inputs at once.

And I’m also looking at whether these beliefs connect in any way to behaviors such as talking on the phone while driving or texting while you’re in a class, but as I mentioned, we can only do so many things at once!

The purpose is to better understand what people think about their own attention and memory capacities, and to design interventions that can help change some of these beliefs.

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