Since the days of Ancient Greece, philosophers and then psychologists, neurophysiologists and biologists have been trying to unravel its secrets. Socrates argued that it is like the imprint of a ring on the wax tablet of the soul, and for a long time it was believed that our memory is a trace of the past, which can be accurately reproduced if necessary.
However, modern science claims that our memories are only a rough sketch of what actually happened. And scientists from Latin America have found that short-term memory cannot be considered the first stage of long-term memory – their mechanisms are different1…
These findings confirm that memory functioning is a complex process, and many of its mysteries have not yet been solved. What do we know for sure?
1. Where is the memory?
Whenever the researchers thought they had found a “memory center”, they were forced to retreat: memories are not stored in one specific area of the brain. Today, most scientists believe that memory is “localized” in synapses – the areas of contact between neurons. And the information to be remembered is encoded by means of chemicals involved in the interaction of neurons.
Therefore, you cannot name one specific area of the brain where a specific memory would be stored. At the same time, some of its zones play a more essential role for certain types of memory, since if they are damaged, serious violations of one of them occur.
Memory is a collection of “modules”. If one is damaged, the memory function as a whole is not impaired
For example, the hippocampus – part of the ancient cerebral cortex – is responsible for remembering impressions, including faces and names, and decides what to transfer from short-term memory to long-term storage. When this part of the brain is damaged as a result of illness or injury, a person begins to live only in the past: new impressions are not stored in long-term memory.
2. What are the types of memory?
Information enters the brain from the senses, therefore they speak of visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and gustatory memory.
There are other types: verbal (memory for unrelated words); semantic (it “stores” the meanings and meanings of words); motor (memory for gestures and movements); emotional (memory for feelings); somatic (thanks to her we remember bodily sensations) …
Several types of memory are associated with our activities: musical, facial memory, etc. Psychologists talk about procedural memory – we know how to act, and declarative – we remember the meaning of actions and events.
However, these classifications are conditional, because memory is a collection of “modules” that are in constant interaction. Therefore, if one of its types is damaged, the memory function as a whole is not disturbed.
A potion from oblivion?
We want (without difficulty) to memorize large amounts of information. Do medications help improve our memory, says neurologist Zinaida Kolesnikova.
“The brain, like the whole body, needs nutrition. So, the amount of acetylcholine, due to which nervous excitement is transmitted during memorization, depends on the amount of choline (vitamin B4) supplied with food. If choline is low, acetylcholine is not enough, and we complain about memory. In addition, the brain needs phospholipids, folic acid, selenium, tyrosine, vitamins. During periods of intellectual activity and stress, he consumes increased nutrients. After the cellular mechanisms of memory were discovered, it became possible to develop new drugs for patients with various disorders. Still, the “magic pill” capable of activating all memory resources has not yet been invented. “
3. How are our memories organized?
The brain instantly, without the participation of consciousness, compares new information with what is already stored in memory. The signal “travels” through a network of cross-referencing, like in a huge library catalog.
For example, we see a bee: in order to remember the word “bee”, visual memory is associated with lexical memory, which makes a request to semantic memory. From this moment, other neural circuits are established, and we remember our fear – after all, we have already been stung (this is how sensory and emotional memory manifests itself) – and pleasure (taste memory reminds us that we love honey).
With fresh information, the brain creates new categories and redefines the old ones. It helps us remember more easily …
4. How long do they last?
From a split second to a lifetime. Ultra-short (sensory) memory: for several moments (from 0.3 to 3-4 seconds) we continue to hear, feel, feel the same as a few seconds ago. For example, blinking, we close our eyes for a moment and continue to see what was just before our eyes. Then we forget these images or store them in long-term memory.
Short-term memory: its task is to keep (for about 20-30 seconds) in consciousness a generalized image of information received from sensory memory, and then recode the most relevant for long-term storage.
Random access memory: stores information for the time required to perform a specific action. For example, we want to call someone, look for a number in the phone book, remember it and, if nothing interferes with us, we can dial it correctly. But if the line is busy and you need to call back later, we have time to forget the number. The duration of such memory varies from a minute to several days.
Long-term memory: thanks to it, we keep the events of the past indefinitely and can remember them.
5. Can memory be overloaded?
For a long time it was believed that he could not, perhaps because psychologists knew examples of immense memory. Outstanding Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, in his “Little Book of Great Memory” (Moscow State University, 1968), described the story of a patient with whom he worked for 30 years. This person involuntarily remembered and could not forget huge volumes of new information and suffered deeply because of his super memory.
But usually the volume of short-term memory is limited: we memorize from five to nine numbers or words. It is not possible to keep a longer chain in memory – the new information displaces the old one. The amount of memory can be increased due to the consolidation of information – from letters to syllables, to words, to meanings, but still we will remember from five to nine semantic units.
Long-term memory has limitless resources. But we can not remember everything that was once sent for storage. This can be explained by the fact that our ability to reproduce information in memory is limited.
6. When do our memories begin?
Forty-eight hours after birth, the baby already recognizes its mother. Moreover, there are prenatal memories: a newborn child remembers songs and music that the mother sang or listened to during pregnancy – listening to them, he calms down or falls asleep better. And some babies seem to be able to describe or draw what their prenatal life looked like. We can assume that memorization begins even before our birth.
7. Why do we remember so little from childhood?
Our earliest (infant) memory is emotional and motor, in children of three to five years, figurative memory is in the lead, that is, they remember without the participation of consciousness, and logical memory blossoms only by the age of 10-13.
Forgetting is the flip side of the memory process: if we remembered everything, our life would become unbearable
That is why we have little meaningful childhood memories, our memory of it is mainly manifested in spontaneous reactions and sensations, and they are usually associated with strong emotions: joy, fear, shame.
8. Why does memory loss happen?
Forgetting is the flip side of the memory process: if we remembered everything, our life would become unbearable. That is why people with hypermnesia (over-memory) have to resort to special tricks in order to forget.
In everyday life, our small “holes in memory” (we forgot to go to the bakery on the way from work; we doubt whether we turned off the iron when leaving home) are caused rather by inattention, by the fact that we cannot concentrate on all current affairs, as well as thoughts that distract us.
Sometimes we cannot remember a certain word or name. This happens because we remember different information, being in different states – they depend on our interest, motivation, emotions that we are experiencing at this moment. And we can better reproduce it at the level of activity at which we memorized. By the way, this is why it is impossible to learn a foreign language in a dream.
But real (painful) memory loss – amnesia – is often accompanied by brain injuries, for example, in an accident: a person cannot remember the events that either preceded the incident or immediately followed it. It is interesting that after recovery, he forgets forever what happened to him during the treatment.
In addition, of course, there are serious brain dysfunctions: in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, nerve cells first die off in the hippocampus, and then in other parts of the brain, which leads to irreversible memory loss.
Moreover, with Alzheimer’s disease, semantic memory is lost – a person remembers how to perform certain actions, but does not understand why, and with parkinsonism, procedural memory: a person knows what to do, but does not understand how.
Didn’t finish … and remember!
When preparing for a report or exam, sometimes interrupt your studies. And at the moment when you are most passionate about them. The point is that information is better remembered when the effort is incomplete. This pattern was revealed by the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik (“the Zeigarnik effect”).
After conducting a series of experiments, she proved that when what was conceived was not completed, the internal emotional stress (without receiving discharge) remains so high that we involuntarily keep in our memory and easily reproduce what is so important to us now.
9. Why do we lose memory as we grow old?
During natural aging, the brain continues to function stably. However, we all know elderly people who forget what happened recently, but clearly remember the events of ancient times. The fact is that in the brain, newly created neural connections are destroyed first, and then earlier ones. And the first thing that falls out of memory is what was remembered recently.
There are other causes of memory impairment with age. The body ages: vision, hearing and touch become dull. A person, for example, gets used to the fact that he perceives only vague outlines. The brain, receiving less and less signals and stimuli necessary to assimilate new information, closes in on the familiar.
The richer the space surrounding the child, the better his memorization skills will develop.
Diet becomes less varied and does not saturate the brain as well, and decreased physical activity reduces the supply of oxygen. Lack of personal motivation, narrowing the range of interests also affect memory impairment.
However, with the help of training, we can preserve our ability to remember and reproduce information for many years. For example, many classical musicians were able to play their instrument until old age. So, the American pianist Mieczyslaw Horzhovsky gave his last brilliant concerts in … 94 years.
10. Why do some people have better memories?
There is no single answer to this question. Geneticists have not yet discovered the gene responsible for the quality of memory. But there is no doubt: the richer the space surrounding the child, the better his memorization abilities will develop.
Wealth means a variety of objects, shapes, colors, sounds and smells, experiences and discoveries. And also positive emotions: the more of them in a child’s life, the stronger everything connected with them will be imprinted in his memory.
And then, during life, everyone develops different strategies for memorizing: we build relationships between different types of information in our own way, sort it. And the more varied these strategies, the better the memory.
- Henri Bergson Creative Evolution. Matter and Memory “Harvest, 2001
- “Psychology of Memory” Edited by Y. Gippenreiter and V. Romanov AST: Astrel, 2008.
- Stephen Rose “Memory Device. From molecules to consciousness ”Mir, 1995.
- Veronika Nurkova “General psychology. Memory “Academy, 2008.
About the expert
Tatiana Rebeko – psychologist, candidate of psychological sciences, leading researcher of the laboratory of psychology of abilities and mental resources. V.N.Druzhinin IP RAS.
1 I. Izquierdo, J. Medinab, M. Viannaa, L. Izquierdoa, D. Barrosa “Separate Mechanisms for Short- and Long-term Memory”. Behavioral Brain Research, 1999, vol. 103.
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