Memory and the Human Brain

Photo courtesy of Flickr: dm74

The human brain is undoubtedly the most fascinating organ in our bodies. Even with all of the most advanced technologies, scientists and doctors still cannot precisely explain many processes performed by the brain. Our memories are not physical things. Rather it is a process through which the brain encodes information and details for storage and later retrieval. In this article we’ll explore the parts of the brain responsible for processing memories and find out how it all works.

The Brain and Memory

The brain has separate parts and can be described in three distinct sections: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem. The cerebrum makes up the bulk of the brain. It is made up of four different lobes: the frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes. Much of the cerebrum manages upper level tasks such as speech, emotion, reasoning, and sensory perception. The temporal lobe in particular also deals with some of these functions as well as memory. The cerebellum is primarily concerned with functions related to motor control, cognition, and balance. Apart from these tasks, it has an important role in processing our procedural (long term) memories.

The Memory Process

There are three main stages for forming and storing memories. After being exposed to external stimuli, our brains first need to encode the information to create a memory of it. Next, the information is stored and added to other banks of past memories. In the final stage, the brain attempts to retrieve a memory that has already been stored. In some cases the retrieval may be intentional, as when we purposely try to remember something. In other cases, the retrieval is unintentional and is simply triggered by a stimulus that matches something pertaining to the memory. For example, suppose a person drinks coffee for the very first time and spills it on themselves, creating a big mess and a burn on their skin. The next time they smell or taste coffee, it is highly likely that they will remember that previous incident, even if they were not intentionally trying to remember it.

Types of Memory

Think about when we try to memorize a phone number just long enough to jot it down on a piece of paper. In this instance, we are using our short term memory. It is a type of working memory that lets us remember small amounts of information for a very brief period of time. Short term memory works best with audio input rather than visual. For example, if we repeat a phone number out loud, we are more likely to remember it rather than if we simply saw it in print. By contrast, long term memory is information that lasts with us for years. Sometimes it might even last a lifetime! While short term memory is typically associated with remembering small specific bits of data, long term memory focuses on larger scale events, feelings, or conversations. For example, if we think back to our first bike ride, or our first date, we would be recalling information stored in our long term memory.

Memory Problems

Sometimes our memories can fail due to a number of reasons. One common cause is simply absentmindedness or failing to pay attention when we are exposed to some information. For example, if a person is thinking about the latest sports scores while their spouse asks them to pick up a few items from the grocery store, they will most likely forget the requested items when they arrive at the store. Transcience is another common cause of memory problems. In this case, our memories simply fade or degrade over time. Transcience can cause us to end up with memories where we can remember a rough version of an event, but without all of the exact details. As people age, they can succumb to diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, which also cause the onset of memory loss or failure.

Tips to Improve Memory

For young and old people alike, there are many strategies and mental exercises we can do to help us improve our memories. When trying to memorize specific data, for example when studying for an exam, it helps to break down the information into smaller, relatable chunks. Other memory aids include using mnemonics, pegwords, or creating a story around the information.

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