Rapid advancements in neuroscience mean that information gets outdated fast. This is one reason that there’s a lot of misinformation and myths floating around about the brain and memory. In this article, we aim to dispel these myths and present the truth about memory.
What is Memory?
Memory is better described as an activity or process than as being connected to a specific area of the brain. The psychological processes involved in information acquisition, storage, retention, and subsequent retrieval are referred to as “memory” processes.
How are Memories Formed?
In order to create a new memory, information needs to be converted into a usable form, which is called encoding. Once the information is successfully encoded, it is stored in our memory for later use.
Researchers now understand that memories are formed through the connections between brain cells, known as neurons. These connections can be strengthened or new connections can be created, which is why practising and reviewing information helps improve memory. It strengthens the connections in our brain that store that specific memory.
Most of our stored memories are not in our conscious awareness most of the time. However, when we need to remember something, the retrieval process helps us bring those memories into our conscious awareness.
How are memories retrieved?
Have you ever walked by a familiar place and found yourself suddenly overcome with memories associated with that place?
Let’s take Titi’s visit to her former home as an illustration. She sees or remembers that location, and a wave of associated memories rushes through her mind. She begins remembering how she used to study, go to class, and hang out with friends right there. The act of seeing or thinking about the location served as the catalyst for these memories.
Imagine Segun walking past a bakery and smelling the enticing aroma of hot, fresh chocolate chip cookies. He is suddenly overcome by a wave of memories that take him back to a previous relationship in which his ex-girlfriend used to bake those cookies.
The scent acts as a powerful trigger, evoking vivid memories filled with laughter, warmth, and the joy of spending time with his former partner.
These examples illustrate how powerful triggers, such as scents, music, sight, etc can bring forth memories from our past It demonstrates how specific stimuli can work as keys to release a flood of related memories.
One theory that helps us understand memory organization and retrieval is the semantic network model. According to this model, our memories are stored in a network-like structure in our brain. Memories are interconnected, and specific triggers activate related memories.
Our capacity to retrieve information is also influenced by the organization of our memories. It is simpler to access and retrieve memories when they are organized. Smells, for example, can act as cues to recall memories and allow us to remember and relive the experiences connected to them.
We can better appreciate the complex operation of our memory system and how certain stimuli can take us back in time to cherish and rekindle our memories by understanding the relationship between triggers, memories, and retrieval.
Types of Memory
Different models have been put forth to explain memory, but the stage model frequently reveals the truth about memory. This model, introduced by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin in 1968, describes three distinct stages or types of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.
Sensory memory is the earliest stage of memory. It captures sensory information from our surroundings but only holds it for a very brief period. Visual information lasts for about half a second, while auditory information lingers for three to four seconds.
In this stage, we selectively pay attention to certain aspects of sensory memory. By focusing on these details, some of the information can move to the next stage: short-term memory.
Short-term memory, also known as active memory, refers to the information we are currently aware of or thinking about. It can be compared to our conscious mind in Freudian psychology. When we pay attention to sensory memories, they are transformed into information stored in short-term memory.
Although many short-term memories fade quickly, paying attention helps them progress to the next stage: long-term memory. Most of the information held in short-term memory remains for about 20 to 30 seconds.
To enhance the capacity of short-term memory, we can use strategies like chunking, which involves grouping related information into smaller, more manageable chunks.
The terms “short-term memory” and “working memory” are often used interchangeably. Working memory refers to the processes used to temporarily store, organize, and manipulate information.
In a well-known paper published in 1956, psychologist George Miller proposed that short-term memory has a capacity of about five to nine items. However, recent studies suggest that the true capacity is likely closer to four.
Long-term memory involves the ongoing storage of information. In Freudian psychology, it corresponds to the preconscious and unconscious levels.
This information remains outside our immediate awareness but can be retrieved into working memory when needed. Some memories are easy to recall, while others are more challenging to access.
Common Memory Myths Debunked
Haven’t we all heard myths that are actually a lie? Here are some common memory myths and the truth about them.
Myth 1: Memory accurately records and stores events like a video recorder.
The truth about memory: Memory is not a precise representation of the past. It is very individualized and influenced by many things, including perception, focus, and interpretation. Over time, memories can change or become distorted.
Myth 2: Human memory functions like a computer, storing information in separate and precise compartments.
The truth about memory: Memory is a complex and interconnected system. Information is not stored in isolated compartments but rather distributed and connected across different areas of the brain.
Myth 3: Memories are arranged in a filing cabinet-like manner and are readily accessible.
The truth about memory: Memory is not organized and stored in a linear fashion. They are connected to one another and can be connected to various associations. Context, cues, and emotional states are just a few examples of the variables that can affect memory retrieval.
Myth 4: Memory declines with age, and we can do nothing to prevent it.
The truth about memory: While certain aspects of memory may decline with age, such as processing speed and working memory, there are strategies to improve and maintain memory function. Mental stimulation, healthy lifestyle habits, and memory exercises can help mitigate age-related memory changes.
Myth 5: Memory loss is always an indication of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
The truth about memory: A number of factors, such as stress, fatigue, adverse drug reactions, and other medical conditions, can contribute to memory loss. Memory issues do not always point to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. A healthcare professional must be consulted in order to perform an accurate evaluation and diagnosis.
Myth 6: Photographic memory (eidetic memory) is a common and attainable ability.
The truth about memory: Photographic memory, where individuals can recall visual information with exceptional precision, is extremely rare and not easily attainable. Most people have normal memory abilities and cannot remember every detail with photographic accuracy.
How to Improve Our Memory for Learning
Forgetting is a surprisingly common event. Just think about how simple it is to forget someone’s name or to miss a crucial appointment. However, by strengthening our memories, we can lower the forgetting curve and more effectively retain information. We can use the following techniques to strengthen our memory:
- Write it down: Putting pen to paper helps reinforce the memory in our brains and can serve as a future reminder or reference.
- Attach meaning to it: Connecting new information to something meaningful can facilitate better recall. For example, linking a new acquaintance to someone we already know can help us remember their name.
- Repeat it: Repetition strengthens the encoding of memories beyond our short-term memory, making them more likely to stick.
- Group it: Organizing information into categories makes it easier to remember and retrieve.
- Test yourself: While studying and reviewing information may seem effective, research suggests that being tested on the material is actually a powerful way to improve memory recall.
- Take a mental picture: Making a conscious effort to remember things we often forget, such as the location of our car keys, can enhance our memory abilities.
- Get enough rest: Sleep plays a vital role in learning and memory formation. Sufficient rest is crucial for optimal memory function.
- Use memorization techniques: Employing techniques like rehearsal, mnemonics, and other memory strategies can be helpful in overcoming minor memory difficulties.