Understanding how your memory works

Before you attempt to grapple with the science of memory, it is important to remind yourself that there are two different elements of what most of us think of as memory:

1 Fixing the memory in the first place.

2 Recalling the memory when you need it.

What is actually going on in your mind when you are using your memory is, not surprisingly, extremely complex. Rather than focusing on any one single area, scientists increasingly think that a number of different ones are involved, often almost simultaneously, depending on the particular kind of experience. It seems likely that various parts of your learning brain—the cortex area, the amgydala, and the hippocampus especially—all have roles to play.

Every time you sense something, an electrochemical connection is made. It leaves a trace or pathway of connections between your synapses. Each one of these is, potentially, a memory. The more a particular pattern of connections is activated, the more likely it is that a memory will be created. For the memory to stick, however, it has to mean something: your brain has to find some meaning in it. Relevance to something you are already interested in may help a memory to stick. Emotions also play an important part. Chemicals are produced that act as effective transmitters to help you lay down effective memories. It seems likely that, in moderate amounts, the two neurotransmitters adrenaline and noradrenaline (also known as epinephrine and norepinephrine) act as fixers, helping to ensure that a memory becomes long term. (You probably remember where you were and who you were with when you had your first kiss, for example!)

However, if the emotion is so intense that your survival is threatened, then your adrenal glands start to work more energetically, in case you need to fight it out or run away. If the stress continues, you may start to produce another chemical called cortisol, which decreases your effectiveness to learn or remember.

To understand your memory, it may be helpful to have a much clearer idea of how many different activities are encompassed by this extraordinary capability. I started this section by distinguishing between laying down a memory and recalling it when needed, but there are many other ways of looking at memory that may also help you to be clearer about what you mean.

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Responses

  • cotman
    How memory works remind yourself?
    7 years ago

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