Memory, How it Works

With the exception of your physical appearance, memory describes who you are.  It’s your memory that prompts behavior and governs  your skills.

Neuroscientists divide memory into a variety of types.  But all memory can be sorted into three (3) parts;  Working Memory, Short-term Memory and Long-term Memory. Think of Working Memory and Short-term Memory as  containers that will hold information for short periods of time, depending on what you’re doing and how important the information is to you.  They mostly function on a conscious level.

You can think of Long-term Memory as information you believe will be useful at some point in the future, so you store it in your brain-attic in a way that will allow you to continually retrieve what you need, when you need it.  You can move Long-term Memories in and out of Short-term and Working Memory as needed.

Your Working Memory container retains information based on need and use.  Your Working Memory container will retain information for a short time when it’s something as simple as remembering an unfamiliar telephone number long enough to make the call.  Or it will recall from storage and hold complex information, such as math functions, when they’re needed.  The length of time your Working memory container will accurately hold information depends on how important it is to you and how involved you are in the task.

Your Short-term Memory container, on the other hand, functions as a filter.  You are constantly receiving information from your five sensors; sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and feel.  All information received from these sensors goes into your Short- term Memory container where it’s sorted according to need and importance.

Importance is established by repetition, reward and survival needs.  Information in your Short-term Memory container may go into Working memory.  It may go into Long- term Memory or it may be discarded.  It all depends on need and past experience.  If your Short-Term memory container isn’t doing its job, you won’t be able to make long term memories.

Short-term and Working Memory are the primary types of memory used for day-to-day living.  We draw on Long-term Memory when needed.  Memories that are recalled and used get stronger.  Memories that are used infrequently will get weaker with time.  A second language learned and not used for a long period of time  is a good example of this.

The attic that stores your Long-term Memories houses information for recall and use sometime in the future.  The attic that stores your Long-term Memory  can hold anything from memories of your childhood days to work related skills.  You have to be careful with Long-term Memory.  Long term memories that are not recalled and used regularly tend to lose accuracy over time.

Once we’re born, memories are made from information we obtain as a result of exposure, or experience, both formal and informal.  To make those memories we need experience-dependent brain cells.  Experience-dependent brain cells are neurons generated in your seat of memory and learning, the hippocampus.  Not all experience is retained, but when it is a neurotransmitter is required to move the information into storage.  That neurotransmitter is a neuron with a dopamine rider.  You could say that the neuron provides the transportation while the dopamine acts as the messenger.

Experience-dependent brain cells allow us to absorb new information, make memories and learn.  We generate experience-dependent brain cells rapidly when we’re young.   Until about 1998 it was believed that we stopped generating experience dependent brain cells in our early twenties.  Now we know that we can generate experience-dependent brain cells throughout life as long as we stay physically active.

The production of experience-dependent brain cells is dependent on the availability of a hormone known as “Brain Derived Neuronal Growth Factor” (“BDNGF”).  The production of “BDNGF” is dependent on an individual’s physical activity.  A person’s memory, therefore is dependent on how physically active they are.

You can picture the body of a brain cell, or neuron, as a circle with branching trees extending from the top half of its outer rim and a tail extending from its lower rim.  The branching trees are dendrites.  They are the cell’s receiver of information.  The tail of the brain cell, or neuron, is called an axon.  The axon transmits information, received and processed by the cell body, to other neurons.

Brain tissue is basically a skeletal structure that holds cells just like a building holds rooms. It’s the cells that do all the work.  Blood supplies the tissue and cells with water and nutrition.  For tissue to remain healthy and for cells to function effectively, they must draw an adequate supply of blood.

The circulation of blood in the brain is essential for memory formation, processing and retrieval.  The generation of experience-dependent brain cells are essential to the retention of information as memory.

You may want to go from here to “Brain Plasticity”