Anti aging guide

How Does Our Memory Works



The theories regarding how a human memory works in encoding, storage and retrieval process

Can memory be improved? Of course it can. Memory is like a muscle: if you don’t exercise it, it weakens. Exercising your memory should start early in life with regular mental games, such as puzzles, crosswords and reading.

Most commonly, the information is already sitting in the brain but we lose access to it for some reason. This is when we talk about `retrieval’ problems. Less commonly, we may have problems with registering new memories in the brain. This is called an ‘assimilation’ problem.

To give you a better idea of these problems, we will discuss in simple terms how memory works. The remembering process can be divided into three different parts:

  • Encoding
  • Storage
  • Retrieval

Encoding means to imprint or to transfer information into the memory banks. The information, after being picked up by our senses, is sent to the brain through nerves which transform the information into coded electrical signals.

When a particular piece of information arrives at the storage area of the brain, it is somehow stockpiled into the memory banks. This is the stage of storage. It isn’t clear how storage works, but scientists think that short-term memory and long-term memory may involve different processes.

For short-term memory, a kind of self-help action between the communication pathways of brain cells may take place. As an example, think of a field of grass. If people walk over it many times in a certain direction, they will create a pathway. Others will be able to see the pathway and use it to arrive at their destination quickly. When people stop passing through, the grass will slowly grow back and delete the pathway, making it difficult for other people to find their way. In the brain analogy, if the pathway is not used again and again, it will switch off after a few minutes, hours or days. The memory will then be lost. The process is called ‘synaptic facilitation’, but you may want to think of it as ‘keeping the channels open’. Synaptic facilitation is responsible only for short-term memory.

Long-term memory, on the other hand, works differently. It may involve a permanent change in the shape of special memory proteins which get twisted, bent or otherwise changed to encode and hold the information long term. When we try to remember information which was encoded and stored a long time ago, our brain asks these proteins to provide the information they hold.

These are the most commonly accepted theories regarding memory, but are not 100 per cent proven. There may be other mechanisms of storing information in the brain which at present remain elusive.

The third stage is the task of retrieval. During this stage, our brain pinpoints the information we want to retrieve and makes it available for use.

There is something special here about rhymes, poems and songs. We are normally better able to remember a song than a series of words or numbers. This is because the memories of the sound or rhythm are encoded in addition to the memory of the words.

Very old people or patients with dementia who may not remember much of their past may still be able to recite poems or songs from their childhood.

Posted by Carol Hudgens - February 4, 2012 at 8:05 pm