Health & Wellness / Healthy America

An Overview of Memory

memory-brain-science

The ability to remember events is an amazing skill the human body maintains. To have memory is crucial in one’s development, for one’s experiences heavily shape his personality. Typically, meaningful experiences are stored as memories, and one often reflects upon them when making every day decisions, or forming opinions. Thus, it is important to understand how memory actually works, considering it allows one to form a foundation for his entire belief system, and perform tasks logically and efficiently.

The first step in understanding memory is knowing the definition of a synapse. Simply put, a synapse refers to the junction, or space, between two nerve cells. In order for the body to have any type of physical reaction, nerve cells must communicate with each other, and it is at synapses where said communication takes place. Interestingly, synapses are not fixed for life; In response to certain experiences, they can be added, deleted, or altered. This phenomenon is called synaptic plasticity.

Synapses and memory

When it comes to memory, synapses are important because they allow pathways through the brain. It is not within cells that memories reside, but the pathway of communication between cells that form memories. Depending on the activity, the body uses specific neural pathways to register or perform the task. It is generally more difficult to perform new tasks, at first, because the neural pathways that allow the performance are “untrained.” Through performing an action multiple times, however, synapses modify themselves allowing easier transmission of signals. This process is called synaptic potentiation, which plays a huge role in the formation of memory.

Types of memory

Interestingly, there are three main types of memory including: immediate, short term, and long term memory. The main difference between these forms of memory is reflected by the length of time that information is stored in the brain until it is forgotten. Nonetheless, each form must utilize neural pathways in order to work.

Immediate memory only lasts a few seconds. Through the use of immediate memory, one can respond to events taking place in the present moment. For example, when having a conversation with somebody, immediate memory allows for one to register the words the other says, enabling him to provide a response. Without immediate memory, one could not properly communicate as he would forget each word that was said as a new word was spoken.

Short-term memory usually lasts from a few seconds to a few hours. This form of memory is convenient for everyday activities; short term memory allows for one to create a mental check list of tasks he has completed, versus tasks he must accomplish. Through the use of short term memory, one is kept from performing a task that has already been completed. Thus, this means of remembrance provides for a great sense of efficiency. Although useful, short term memory stores a very limited amount of information (typically up to seven figures). *Notice how phone numbers only have seven digits.

Long term memory lasts up to a lifetime and can store far more information than can short term memory. This form of memory allows for one to remember his experiences, and materials with an abundance of information (ex: play scripts). There are two types of long term memory: explicit, and implicit. Implicit memory refers to the memory of things that come reflexively or unconsciously. For example, remembering how to drive a car, or emotions. Meanwhile, explicit memory is based on actual facts one can put into words. One must think to use explicit memory.

Why you forget

Although memory is important, forgetting is an equally important mechanism utilized by the body. Without the ability to forget, one would experience constant stimulation overload. Moreover, forgetting is the body’s way of doing away with useless information, so one has room to remember only what is most important. Typically, forgetting occurs when neural circuits cease to fire. 

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