What are memories? I don’t remember…

Memories. Remember the day you graduated from school? Remember when you first learnt to drive?  Where would we be if we could never recollect memories? Imagine we couldn’t keep memories for more than a die, picture going to bed each night writing notes about every single thing we need to remember for the next day, and to make matters, we wouldn’t even remember how to read them. Memories are one of the most important inventions of our mind. What are they actually? How do we store them? How do we remember?

If I ask you to remember your first love, you immediately have a picture in your head of how they look and probably how they sound, how they smile, etc. But consider the moment when you actually met them, your visual system likely registered physical features, such as the color of their eyes and hair. Your auditory system may have picked up the sound of their laugh. You probably noticed the scent of their perfume or cologne. You may even have felt the touch of their hand. Experts believe that the hippocampus, along with another part of the brain called the frontal cortex, is responsible for analyzing these various sensory inputs and deciding if they’re worth remembering. Which is probably why you don’t remember every single part of every incident or a memory.

Although a memory begins with perception, it is encoded and stored using the language of electricity and chemicals. Here’s how it works: Nerve cells connect with other cells at a point called a synapse. All the action in your brain occurs at these synapses, where electrical pulses carrying messages leap across gaps between cells. These cells form a network which is actually a memory. Instructions to regenerate these “networks” are processed in different parts of our brain. The visual part of our memory is processed in one part while the other details like the auditory part is stored elsewhere. This is the reason why we see memories in black and white if the part of our brain responsible for rendering color is damaged. Enough of technical details. Memories in our brain can be stored in our sensory memory, short-term memory or long-term memory in 3 steps. Encoding (Encoding the memory so that it can be processed as thoughts), Storage ( Storing the memory so that it can be retrieved later) and Retrieval (Remembering the memory).

Encoding memory occurs using the neurons to form networks (memories).

It’s your sensory memory that allows a perception such as a visual pattern, a sound, or a touch to linger for a brief moment after the stimulation is over.After that first flicker, the sensation is stored in short-term memory. Short-term memory has a fairly limited capacity; it can hold about seven items for no more than 20 or 30 seconds at a time. Unimportant parts of the memory is filtered out and the memory is stored in the long-term memory. (ie a memory must first pass through sensory memory and then short-term memory before it can move to long-term memory)

It’s not enough to just store a memory but we need to retrieve it. Retrieving a memory (or remembering) involves retrieving the information on an unconscious level, bringing it into your conscious mind at will. While some people complain that they have a “bad” memory, (except for if you have a disease), It isn’t necessarily the case – It’s usually not the fault of your entire memory system but an inefficient component of one part of your memory system.  The more often we recollect a memory, the more easier it is to recollect all the details.

Semantic Network Theory says that memories that are more vivid (make more sense) are easier to recollect. This is because there are more retrieval cues to help in retrieving the memory. Elaborate Rehearsal and Maintenance Retrieval are two methods to increase memory retention capacity.

Let’s look at how you remember where you put your glasses. When you go to bed at night, you must register where you place your glasses: Pay attention carefully when you place it on the bedside table. Concentrate on where you put them or you won’t be able to recollect it the following morning. This information is encoded in this way and then stored for retrieval later. If the system is working properly, when you wake up in the morning you will remember exactly where you left your eyeglasses.

If you’ve forgotten where they are, one of several things could have happened:

  • You may not have registered clearly where you put them down to begin with.
  • You may not have retained what you registered.
  • You may not be able to retrieve the memory accurately.

Therefore, if you want to stop forgetting where you left your eyeglasses, you will have to work on making sure that all three stages of the remembering process are working properly.

If you’ve forgotten something, it may be because you didn’t encode it very effectively, because you were distracted while encoding should have taken place, or because you’re having trouble retrieving it. If you’ve “forgotten” where you put your eyeglasses, you may not have really forgotten at all – instead, the location of your eyeglasses may never have gotten into your memory in the first place. For example, you probably would say that you know what a five-dollar bill looks like, but most of the times that you’ve seen one, you’ve not really encoded its appearance, so that if you tried to describe it, you probably couldn’t.

Distractions that occur while you’re trying to remember something can really get in the way of encoding memories. If you’re trying to read a business report in the middle of a busy airport, you may think you’re remembering what you read, but you may not have effectively saved it in your memory.

Finally, you may forget because you’re simply having trouble retrieving the memory. If you’ve ever tried to remember something one time and couldn’t, but then later you remember that same item, it could be that there was a mismatch between retrieval cues and the encoding of the information you were searching for.

So don’t blame your brain if you don’t remember something, blame yourself for not properly processing it in the first place. 🙂




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