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HowHumanMemoryWorksHowStuffWorks

HowHumanMemoryWorks
byRichardC.Mohs,PhD
BrowsethearticleHowHumanMemoryWorks
BrainImageGallery

HowHumanMemoryWorksOverview
Themoreyouknowaboutyourmemory,thebetteryou'llunderstandhowyoucanimproveit.Here'sabasicoverviewofhow
yourmemoryworksandhowagingaffectsyourabilitytoremember.
Yourbaby'sfirstcry...thetasteofyourgrandmother'smolassescookies...thescentofanoceanbreeze.Thesearememories
thatmakeuptheongoingexperienceofyourlifetheyprovideyouwithasenseofself.They'rewhatmakeyoufeel
comfortablewithfamiliarpeopleandsurroundings,tieyourpastwithyourpresent,andprovideaframeworkforthefuture.Ina
profoundway,itisourcollectivesetofmemoriesour"memory"asawholethatmakesuswhoweare.
Mostpeopletalkaboutmemoryasifitwereathingtheyhave,likebadeyesoragoodheadofhair.Butyourmemorydoesn't
existinthewayapartofyourbodyexistsit'snota"thing"youcantouch.It'saconceptthatreferstotheprocessof
remembering.
Inthepast,manyexpertswerefondofdescribingmemoryasasortoftinyfilingcabinetfullofindividualmemoryfoldersin
whichinformationisstoredaway.Otherslikenedmemorytoaneuralsupercomputerwedgedunderthehumanscalp.Buttoday,

Humanmemoryisacomplex,brain
wideprocessthatisessentialto
whoweare.Learnaboutencoding,
thebrain,andshortandlongterm
memory.Seemorebrainpictures.
PublicationsInternational,Ltd.

expertsbelievethatmemoryisfarmorecomplexandelusivethanthatandthatitislocatednotinoneparticularplaceinthe
brainbutisinsteadabrainwideprocess.
Doyourememberwhatyouhadforbreakfastthismorning?Iftheimageofabigplateoffriedeggsandbaconpoppedintoyour
mind,youdidn'tdredgeitupfromsomeoutofthewayneuralalleyway.Instead,thatmemorywastheresultofanincredibly
complexconstructivepoweronethateachofuspossessesthatreassembleddisparatememoryimpressionsfromaweb
likepatternofcellsscatteredthroughoutthebrain.Your"memory"isreallymadeupofagroupofsystemsthateachplaya

differentroleincreating,storing,andrecallingyourmemories.Whenthebrainprocessesinformationnormally,allofthesedifferentsystemsworktogetherperfectly
toprovidecohesivethought.
Whatseemstobeasinglememoryisactuallyacomplexconstruction.Ifyouthinkofanobjectsay,apenyourbrainretrievestheobject'sname,itsshape,its
function,thesoundwhenitscratchesacrossthepage.Eachpartofthememoryofwhata"pen"iscomesfromadifferentregionofthebrain.Theentireimageof
"pen"isactivelyreconstructedbythebrainfrommanydifferentareas.Neurologistsareonlybeginningtounderstandhowthepartsarereassembledintoacoherent
whole.
Ifyou'reridingabike,thememoryofhowtooperatethebikecomesfromonesetofbraincellsthememoryofhowtogetfromheretotheendoftheblockcomes
fromanotherthememoryofbikingsafetyrulesfromanotherandthatnervousfeelingyougetwhenacarveersdangerouslyclose,fromstillanother.Yetyou're
neverawareoftheseseparatementalexperiences,northatthey'recomingfromalldifferentpartsofyourbrain,becausetheyallworktogethersowell.Infact,
expertstellusthereisnofirmdistinctionbetweenhowyourememberandhowyouthink.
Thisdoesn'tmeanthatscientistshavefiguredoutexactlyhowthesystemworks.Theystilldon'tfullyunderstandexactlyhowyourememberorwhatoccursduring
recall.Thesearchforhowthebrainorganizesmemoriesandwherethosememoriesareacquiredandstoredhasbeenaneverendingquestamongbrainresearchers
fordecades.Still,thereisenoughinformationtomakesomeeducatedguesses.Theprocessofmemorybeginswithencoding,thenproceedstostorageand,
eventually,retrieval.
Onthenextpage,you'lllearnhowencodingworksandthebrainactivityinvolvedinretrievingamemory.

LaunchVideo

MemoryEncoding

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Encodingisthefirststepincreatingamemory.It'sabiologicalphenomenon,rootedinthe
senses,thatbeginswithperception.Consider,forexample,thememoryofthefirstpersonyou
everfellinlovewith.Whenyoumetthatperson,yourvisualsystemlikelyregisteredphysical
features,suchasthecoloroftheireyesandhair.Yourauditorysystemmayhavepickedupthe
soundoftheirlaugh.Youprobablynoticedthescentoftheirperfumeorcologne.Youmayeven
havefeltthetouchoftheirhand.Eachoftheseseparatesensationstraveledtothepartofyour
braincalledthehippocampus,whichintegratedtheseperceptionsastheywereoccurringintoone
singleexperienceyourexperienceofthatspecificperson.
Expertsbelievethatthehippocampus,alongwithanotherpartofthebraincalledthefrontal
cortex,isresponsibleforanalyzingthesevarioussensoryinputsanddecidingifthey'reworth

Thetypicalbrainhasabout100trillionsynapses,whicharethe
pointswherenervecellsinthehumanbrainconnectwithothercells.
PublicationsInternational,Ltd.

remembering.Iftheyare,theymaybecomepartofyourlongtermmemory.Asindicatedearlier,
thesevariousbitsofinformationarethenstoredindifferentpartsofthebrain.Howthesebitsand
piecesarelateridentifiedandretrievedtoformacohesivememory,however,isnotyetknown.
Althoughamemorybeginswithperception,itisencodedandstoredusingthelanguageof

electricityandchemicals.Here'showitworks:Nervecellsconnectwithothercellsatapointcalledasynapse.Alltheactioninyourbrainoccursatthesesynapses,
whereelectricalpulsescarryingmessagesleapacrossgapsbetweencells.
Theelectricalfiringofapulseacrossthegaptriggersthereleaseofchemicalmessengerscalledneurotransmitters.Theseneurotransmittersdiffuseacrossthe
spacesbetweencells,attachingthemselvestoneighboringcells.Eachbraincellcanformthousandsoflinkslikethis,givingatypicalbrainabout100trillion
synapses.Thepartsofthebraincellsthatreceivetheseelectricimpulsesarecalleddendrites,featherytipsofbraincellsthatreachouttoneighboringbraincells.
Theconnectionsbetweenbraincellsaren'tsetinconcretetheychangeallthetime.Braincellsworktogetherinanetwork,organizingthemselvesintogroupsthat
specializeindifferentkindsofinformationprocessing.Asonebraincellsendssignalstoanother,thesynapsebetweenthetwogetsstronger.Themoresignalssent
betweenthem,thestrongertheconnectiongrows.Thus,witheachnewexperience,yourbrainslightlyrewiresitsphysicalstructure.Infact,howyouuseyourbrain
helpsdeterminehowyourbrainisorganized.Itisthisflexibility,whichscientistscallplasticity,thatcanhelpyourbrainrewireitselfifitiseverdamaged.
Asyoulearnandexperiencetheworldandchangesoccuratthesynapsesanddendrites,moreconnectionsinyourbrainarecreated.Thebrainorganizesand
reorganizesitselfinresponsetoyourexperiences,formingmemoriestriggeredbytheeffectsofoutsideinputpromptedbyexperience,education,ortraining.
Thesechangesarereinforcedwithuse,sothatasyoulearnandpracticenewinformation,intricatecircuitsofknowledgeandmemoryarebuiltinthebrain.Ifyou
playapieceofmusicoverandover,forexample,therepeatedfiringofcertaincellsinacertainorderinyourbrainmakesiteasiertorepeatthisfiringlateron.The
result:Yougetbetteratplayingthemusic.Youcanplayitfaster,withfewermistakes.Practiceitlongenoughandyouwillplayitperfectly.Yetifyoustoppracticing
forseveralweeksandthentrytoplaythepiece,youmaynoticethattheresultisnolongerperfect.Yourbrainhasalreadybeguntoforgetwhatyouonceknewso
well.
Toproperlyencodeamemory,youmustfirstbepayingattention.Sinceyoucannotpayattentiontoeverythingallthetime,mostofwhatyouencountereverydayis
simplyfilteredout,andonlyafewstimulipassintoyourconsciousawareness.Ifyourememberedeverysinglethingthatyounoticed,yourmemorywouldbefull
beforeyouevenleftthehouseinthemorning.Whatscientistsaren'tsureaboutiswhetherstimuliarescreenedoutduringthesensoryinputstageoronlyafterthe
brainprocessesitssignificance.Whatwedoknowisthathowyoupayattentiontoinformationmaybethemostimportantfactorinhowmuchofityouactually
remember.
Thenextpageprovidesdetailsonhowinformationisstoredinshorttermandlongtermmemory.

ShortandLongTermMemory
Onceamemoryiscreated,itmustbestored(nomatterhowbriefly).Manyexpertsthinktherearethreewayswestorememories:firstinthesensorystagethenin
shorttermmemoryandultimately,forsomememories,inlongtermmemory.Becausethereisnoneedforustomaintaineverythinginourbrain,thedifferent
stagesofhumanmemoryfunctionasasortoffilterthathelpstoprotectusfromthefloodofinformationthatwe'reconfrontedwithonadailybasis.
Thecreationofamemorybeginswithitsperception:Theregistrationofinformationduringperceptionoccursinthebriefsensorystagethatusuallylastsonlya
fractionofasecond.It'syoursensorymemorythatallowsaperceptionsuchasavisualpattern,asound,oratouchtolingerforabriefmomentafterthestimulation
isover.
Afterthatfirstflicker,thesensationisstoredinshorttermmemory.Shorttermmemoryhasafairlylimitedcapacityitcanholdaboutsevenitemsfornomorethan
20or30secondsatatime.Youmaybeabletoincreasethiscapacitysomewhatbyusingvariousmemorystrategies.Forexample,atendigitnumbersuchas
8005840392maybetoomuchforyourshorttermmemorytohold.Butdividedintochunks,asinatelephonenumber,8005840392mayactuallystayinyourshort
termmemorylongenoughforyoutodialthetelephone.Likewise,byrepeatingthenumbertoyourself,youcankeepresettingtheshorttermmemoryclock.
Importantinformationisgraduallytransferredfromshorttermmemoryintolongtermmemory.Themoretheinformationisrepeatedorused,themorelikelyitisto
eventuallyendupinlongtermmemory,ortobe"retained."(That'swhystudyinghelpspeopletoperformbetterontests.)Unlikesensoryandshorttermmemory,
whicharelimitedanddecayrapidly,longtermmemorycanstoreunlimitedamountsofinformationindefinitely.
Peopletendtomoreeasilystorematerialonsubjectsthattheyalreadyknowsomethingabout,sincetheinformationhasmoremeaningtothemandcanbementally
connectedtorelatedinformationthatisalreadystoredintheirlongtermmemory.That'swhysomeonewhohasanaveragememorymaybeabletoremembera
greaterdepthofinformationaboutoneparticularsubject.

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Mostpeoplethinkoflongtermmemorywhentheythinkof"memory"itselfbutmostexpertsbelieveinformationmustfirstpassthroughsensoryandshortterm
memorybeforeitcanbestoredasalongtermmemory.Tolearnhowinformationmakesitswayoutoflongtermmemory,seethenextpage.Wewillexplorehow
memoriesarerecalledandwhathappenswhenamemorycannotberetrievedaphenomenonyoumightcall"forgetting."

MemoryRetrieval
Whenyouwanttoremembersomething,youretrievetheinformationonanunconsciouslevel,bringingitintoyourconsciousmindatwill.Whilemostpeoplethink
theyhaveeithera"bad"ora"good"memory,infact,mostpeoplearefairlygoodatrememberingsometypesofthingsandnotsogoodatrememberingothers.If
youdohavetroublerememberingsomethingassumingyoudon'thaveaphysicaldiseaseit'susuallynotthefaultofyourentirememorysystembutaninefficient
componentofonepartofyourmemorysystem.
Let'slookathowyourememberwhereyouputyoureyeglasses.Whenyougotobedatnight,youmustregisterwhereyouplaceyoureyeglasses:Youmustpay
attentionwhileyousetthemonyourbedsidetable.Youmustbeawareofwhereyouareputtingthem,oryouwon'tbeabletoremembertheirlocationthefollowing
morning.Next,thisinformationisretained,readytoberetrievedatalaterdate.Ifthesystemisworkingproperly,whenyouwakeupinthemorningyouwill
rememberexactlywhereyouleftyoureyeglasses.
Ifyou'veforgottenwheretheyare,oneofseveralthingscouldhavehappened:
Youmaynothaveregisteredclearlywhereyouputthemdowntobeginwith.
Youmaynothaveretainedwhatyouregistered.
Youmaynotbeabletoretrievethememoryaccurately.
Therefore,ifyouwanttostopforgettingwhereyouleftyoureyeglasses,youwillhavetoworkonmakingsurethatallthreestagesoftherememberingprocessare
workingproperly.
Ifyou'veforgottensomething,itmaybebecauseyoudidn'tencodeitveryeffectively,becauseyouweredistractedwhileencodingshouldhavetakenplace,or
becauseyou'rehavingtroubleretrievingit.Ifyou've"forgotten"whereyouputyoureyeglasses,youmaynothavereallyforgottenatallinstead,thelocationofyour
eyeglassesmayneverhavegottenintoyourmemoryinthefirstplace.Forexample,youprobablywouldsaythatyouknowwhatafivedollarbilllookslike,butmost
ofthetimesthatyou'veseenone,you'venotreallyencodeditsappearance,sothatifyoutriedtodescribeit,youprobablycouldn't.
Distractionsthatoccurwhileyou'retryingtoremembersomethingcanreallygetinthewayofencodingmemories.Ifyou'retryingtoreadabusinessreportinthe
middleofabusyairport,youmaythinkyou'rerememberingwhatyouread,butyoumaynothaveeffectivelysaveditinyourmemory.
Finally,youmayforgetbecauseyou'resimplyhavingtroubleretrievingthememory.Ifyou'veevertriedtoremembersomethingonetimeandcouldn't,butthenlater
yourememberthatsameitem,itcouldbethattherewasamismatchbetweenretrievalcuesandtheencodingoftheinformationyouweresearchingfor.
Aswegetolder,memoryproblemstendtoincrease.Inthenextsection,youwilllearnhowagingcanaffectmemory.

EffectsofAgingonMemory
Thereyouareatabusinessfunctionandyouseeacolleagueacrosstheroom.Asyouwalkover,yousuddenlyrealizeyoucan'tremembertheperson'sname.Odds
areyou'renotsuddenlydevelopingAlzheimer'sdisease,althoughmanypeoplejumptothatconclusion.You'resimplyexperiencingabreakdownoftheassembly
processofmemoryabreakdownthatmanyofusbegintoexperienceinour20sandthattendstogetworseaswereachour50s.Thisagedependentlossof
functionappearsinmanyanimals,anditbeginswiththeonsetofsexualmaturity.
Wesawearlierinthischapterthatasyoulearnandremember,yourbraindoesn'tchangeitsoverallstructureorgrowwholenewbatchesofnervecellsit'sthe
connectionsbetweencellsthatchangeasyoulearn.Yoursynapsesarereinforced,andcellsmakemoreandstrongerconnectionswitheachother.Butasyoubegin
toage,thesesynapsesbegintofalter,whichbeginstoaffecthoweasilyyoucanretrievememories.
Researchershaveseveraltheoriesaboutwhat'sbehindthisdeterioration,butmostsuspectthatagingcausesmajorcelllossinatinyregioninthefrontofthebrain
thatleadstoadropintheproductionofaneurotransmittercalledacetylcholine.Acetylcholineisvitaltolearningandmemory.
Inaddition,somepartsofthebrainthatareessentialtomemoryarehighlyvulnerabletoaging.Onearea,calledthehippocampus,loses5percentofitsnervecells
witheachpassingdecadeforatotallossof20percentbythetimeyoureachyour80s.Inaddition,thebrainitselfshrinksandbecomeslessefficientasyouage.
Ofcourse,otherthingscanhappentoyourbraintospeedupthisdecline.Youmayhaveinheritedsomeunhealthygenes,youmighthavebeenexposedtopoisons,
orperhapsyousmokedordranktoomuch.Allthesethingsspeedupmemorydecline.
Soyoucanseethatasyouage,somephysicalchangesinthebraincanmakeitmoredifficulttorememberefficiently.Thegoodnewsisthatthisdoesn'tmeanthat
memorylossanddementiaareinevitable.Whilesomespecificabilitiesdodeclinewithage,overallmemoryremainsstrongformostpeoplethroughouttheir70s.In
fact,researchshowsthattheaverage70yearoldperformsaswelloncertaincognitivetestsasdomany20yearolds,andmanypeopleintheir60sand70sscore
significantlybetterinverbalintelligencethandoyoungerpeople.
Studiesalsohaveshownthatmanyofthememoryproblemsexperiencedbyolderpeoplecanbelessenedorevenreversed.Studiesofnursinghomepopulations
showthatpatientswereabletomakesignificantimprovementsinmemorywhengivenrewardsandchallenges.Physicalexerciseandmentalstimulationalsocan
reallyimprovementalfunction.
Evidencefromanimalstudiessuggeststhatstimulatingthebraincanstopcellsfromshrinkingandcanevenincreasebrainsizeinsomecases.Studiesshowthat
ratslivinginenrichedenvironmentswithlotsoftoysandchallengeshavelargerouterbrainswithlarger,healthierbraincells.Andanimalsgivenlotsofmental

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exercisehavemoredendrites,whichallowtheircellstocommunicatewitheachother.Researchhasshownthat,inourlateryears,astimulatingenvironment
encouragesthegrowthofthesedendrites,whileadullenvironmentimpedesit.
Theimportantpointtorememberisthatasyouage,youmaynotlearnorrememberasquicklyasyoudidwhenyouwereinschoolbutyouwilllikelylearnand
remembernearlyaswell.Inmanycases,anolderperson'sbrainmaybelesseffectivenotbecauseofastructuralororganicproblembutsimplyasaresultoflack
ofuse.
ABOUTTHEAUTHORS:
RichardC.Mohs,Ph.D.,hasbeenvicechairmanoftheDepartmentofPsychiatryattheMountSinaiSchoolofMedicineandassociatechiefofstaffforresearchat
theBronxVeteransAffairsMedicalCenter.Theauthororcoauthorofmorethan300scientificpapers,Dr.Mohshasconductednumerousresearchstudiesonaging,
Alzheimer'sdisease,andcognitivefunction.
CarolTurkingtonisafreelancewriterwhospecializesinthefieldsofhealthandpsychology.AformereditorandwriterfortheDukeUniversityMedicalCenterand
theAmericanPsychologicalAssociation,shehasmorethan40bookstohercredit,includingTheMemoryandMemoryDisordersSourcebookTheEncyclopediaof
MemoryandMemoryDisordersandTheBrainEncyclopedia.

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