How Does Our Memory Really Work and Why Do We Forget?
In this lesson, you will learn about your memory, how it works, how we form memories and why we forget or lose some memories.
Pause and Think: “Why do we forget?”
How We Form Memories
Most often, we talk about memory as if it were something we have, like bad eyesight or beautiful hair, but your memory doesn’t exist in the way a part of your body does — it’s not something you can see or touch, rather according to Richard C. Mohs, it is a concept that refers to the process of remembering.
Try recalling any one of your really vivid memories — your first hug with someone you care about, the taste of your favorite food or the faces of friends and family. You’d most likely find it very easy to fetch one of those memories.
Now, think back to what you had for breakfast a month ago. Interestingly, some of us eat a particular type of food every morning, so that might not be so hard after all. Okay, try remembering exactly how much you spent that day. The point is that some memories aren’t as strong as others. Why do we remember quickly some things and not others? Why do some memories eventually fade?
Forming Memories Involve Communication Between Brain Cells
Let’s begin with what medical research in the field of neuroscience tells us about how memories form.
When you experience something such as trying to call out your phone number for a new acquaintance, the experience is converted into a pulse of electrical energy that travels along a network of neurons.
The information coming from your experience first lands in the short-term or working memory where it can be accessed at any moment between a few seconds to a couple of minutes.
Next, it is then transferred to long-term memory through areas such as the hippocampus and finally to several storage regions spread throughout the brain. (The hippocampus is an important component of the brain for learning and memory.)
Neurons (brain cells which we have talked about in a previous lesson) communicate at dedicated locations called synapses by using neurotransmitters, which can be described as chemical messengers that enable communication between neurons at synapses.
If two neurons establish communication repeatedly, something remarkable happens: there is an increased efficiency of communication between them which means they learn to communicate faster and more effectively.
This persistent increase in synaptic strength as a result of frequent stimulation of the synapse is called “long-term potentiation”. This process allows some memories to get stored long-term.
How We Lose Memories and Why We Forget
It can be frustrating to be unable to recall information when you need it. So, how do some memories get lost?
Well, age is one factor because as we get older, synapses begin to falter and weaken affecting how easily we can make or retrieve memories.
Memories are encoded most strongly when we’re paying attention, when we’re deeply engaged and when information is meaningful to us. Distractions caused by information overload greatly interferes with our ability to pay attention, and thus act as memory thieves.
Another leading cause of memory loss is chronic stress. When we’re constantly overloaded with work and personal responsibilities, our bodies are on hyper-alert, and this response has evolved from a physiological mechanism designed to make sure we can survive in a crisis.
Stress chemicals help mobilize energy and increased alertness, however, with chronic stress which causes excessive release of these chemicals, we experience a loss of brain cells and a reduced ability to form new ones which affects our ability to retain information.
Isolation and depression which are tied together are also memory thieves, especially when we spend most of our time dwelling on sad events from our past. At such times, it becomes difficult to pay attention to the present, and this affects the ability to form short-term memories. Highly stimulating and enriching social interactions give our brains a mental workout.
Three Summarized Reasons Why You Might Have Forgotten Something
Encoding is the first step in creating a memory. It is a process that begins with our senses and how we perceive what goes on around us. Take for example, the memory of a loved one. From your first interaction with the person, your eyes and entire visual system likely registered physical features like their height. Your ears and entire auditory system may have picked up the sound of their laugh, and you may have even felt the touch of their hand. All these separate sensations contributed to the formation of your first memory of the person.
Whenever you forget something, one of the following things could have occurred:
- Probably, you did not pay careful attention to register the information carefully, perhaps due to lack of interest, or
- Maybe, you have not adequately retained what you registered through repeated use of the memory, or
- You might be retrieving an already well-stored memory inaccurately, perhaps because you are stressed or tensed up.
The human memory is a complex, brain-wide process that is really essential to who we are. The more you know about your memory, the better you’ll understand how you can improve it.
There are several steps you can take to aid your brain in preserving your memories.
Physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle kill the brain quite rapidly. So, one really important step is to make sure you stay physically active. Exercise regularly and as vigorously as possible, because increased blood flow to the brain is very helpful. In fact, exercise does seem to counteract some effects of not having a well stimulating social environment around you. Taking walks often is also very helpful for creative thinking.
Your brain needs all the right nutrients to keep functioning correctly, so you need to eat well and eat right. Avoid sugar as much as possible and eat adequate protein-rich foods like fish as well as fruits.
Finally, one of the best defenses for keeping your memory intact is to give your brain regular workouts by exposing yourself to new challenges such as learning a new language or learning to play a musical instrument.
In conclusion, we forget most times because we probably haven’t paid enough attention when getting the new information or experience. Other times, we forget because we probably haven’t consolidated and strengthened the memory through repeated use. As you can see, you play the leading role in maintaining a healthy memory, so wield your power wisely.
What do you think about the ideas shared in this lesson about the human memory? Do you think paying careful attention matters in forming strong memories? How would you describe the human memory to someone who thinks he has a bad memory? Share your thoughts here!
Confused about anything that was mentioned in the lesson? Ask a question!