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Biomedical Research

How Does Memory Work?

Memory is a complex process that makes us who we are. We are a combination of our memory, namely our past experiences. Obviously, our memory isn’t perfect- how many times have you forgotten your keys someplace? Why do we forget things, and how does the process of memory work?

By Harshal Chinthala

Published 1:44 PM EST, Thurs March 11, 2021

Introduction

We define memory as the process in which information is retained in the mind and later retrieved. Human memory capabilities are a key reason for our species’ survival. Through our memory, we can analyze our past and create ideas for the future. Since this process is so complex, it is also hard to study. The very brief answer to the question of how memory works is that memory works on a “dual-process,” basis, where more subconscious, more repetitive thought processes communicate with more conscious, more problem-based thought processes. Elements at these two levels work together and form what we know as memory. This isn’t a clean process as we sometimes misremember things and certain people have better memory retention than others. Memory is a topic that has been highly studied and continues to be researched.

Our Processes of Memory

We can summarize the three processes of memory as encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding is the stage where information is gained in our mind and we can take this information in several ways. Some common ones include semantic encoding, visual encoding, acoustic encoding, and tactile encoding. Semantic encoding is information about what something means. Acoustic is about how something sounds. Visual is how something looks and tactile is how something feels. After encoding, the next step is storage, which is how the information is kept in the brain. 

We can split storage into short-term and long-term memory. Short-term memory consists of memories we are currently thinking about. Short-term memory is usually stored for around twenty to thirty seconds and is limited. Reinforcing short-term memories by constantly remembering them creates long-term memories. Long-term memory can be stored for long periods. Usually, long-term memory is unconscious and you don’t need continued effort to remember them. For example, many people remember the lyrics to a song they heard several years ago because they store it in their long-term memory. Long-term memory can also be triggered by certain events, but it often remains until needed. Short-term memory can only store five to nine pieces of information at a time, whereas long-term memory is essentially unlimited as far as we know.

We know the last step as retrieval. You retrieve information at an unconscious level anytime you wish to recall something, taking it into your conscious mind at will. Although most people believe they either have a “poor” or a “decent” memory, most people are pretty good at recalling some sort of things and not so good at recalling others. Long-term memory is usually retrieved through affiliation. One way of thinking about long-term memory is as a network. So when you remember something about school, it can trigger memories about certain classes, sports, or even friends. Short-term memory is usually retrieved in order. For example, remembering the previous numbers to solve a math problem. 

The part of your brain associated with memory is the hippocampus. At a place called a synapse, nerve cells bind with other cells. At the synapse–where electrical signals bearing messages jump through distances between cells–all the activity in the brain happens. The release of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters is caused by the electrical firing of a pulse through the void, and via the gaps between cells, these neurotransmitters disperse.

How Does Memory Relate to Our Lives?

Being forgetful is very common, but our memory can be improved in a variety of methods. There are ways to reduce memory loss by improving your recall. One way is to test yourself frequently. This is usually the idea incorporated by schools and other institutions that test students with small amounts of information and later perform a summative assessment. Spacing is a method where you learn information over a spread amount of time instead of all at once. Interleaving is another method where you practice only one skill or topic at one time. 

As we get older, our memory capacities decrease and we experience more memory “breakdowns,” or loss of the memory function. Although our brain does not change its structure, the connections in your brain change with age. The synapses which connect cells become weaker and weaker, which affects the ability to retrieve memories. Even though changes in the brain may make it harder to recall information well, our overall memory will remain strong. Also remaining physically and mentally active has been shown to stimulate the brain to improve memory. In conclusion, memory is one of the most important things we have that makes us who we are. We are a combination of our memories and experiences. The process of memory isn’t as simple as it seems, and scientists are still working toward understanding the complexities. 

Harshal Chinthala, Youth Medical Journal 2021

References

How memory works. (n.d.). Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/how-memory-works#:~:text=There%20are%20three%20main%20processes,through%20which%20information%20is%20learned.

Cherry, K. (n.d.). Take a deeper look into human memory. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-memory-2795006

Mohs, R. (2020, May 29). How human memory works. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/human-memory4.htm

By Harshal Chinthala

Harshal Chinthala is student in Kansas City. He is interested in the fields of neurology and cardiology.

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