What Is Memory Anyway, And How Does It Work?
The process by which the brain first acquires information, then stores it and retrieves it when needed, is an amazing yet mysterious phenomenon. But thanks to advanced technology, including positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers have begun to map brain function-our brain wiring-giving us a much better idea of how memories are created
Thought In Action
Memories are laid down as sequences of electrical activity that connect brain cells, or neurons, in various parts of the brain. These electrical pathways link all your senses and connect your sensory input to your physical and emotional responses, storing it all into memory.
When you recall something, you don’t retrieve a single piece of data from a neatly organized file located in one specific area of your brain-it’s much more complex than that. Think of the word “hammer” and your mind instantly recalls the name of this tool, its appearance, its weight and texture, its function, the sound it makes when hitting a nail-each piece of data drawn from a different region of your brain. In recalling your third-grade teacher, you assemble, in just a split second, the various aspects of her appearance, her personality, and perhaps the sound of her voice, and project that multilayered image on the screen we refer to as our “mind’s eye.”
The Short And Long Of It
A memory begins the moment you take in information through your eyes, ears, nose, skin, or taste buds. Sensory impressions are fleeting, however, lasting only a few seconds, unless you consciously decide to remember the information and “encode” it either visually or verbally. Encoded information is first held in short-term memory, but only for about 30 seconds to a few minutes, because capacity there is limited. As new information enters your short-term memory, it bumps out the oldest information that was there.
There are no set rules governing what the mind moves to long-term memory and what it “cleans out.”
Something that garners special interest or attention is a good candidate for long-term storage, especially if two are more senses are involved and the information is somehow associated with an existing memory.
There is virtually no limit to how much we can store in long-term memory, and the information there is never lost (although it may not always be easily accessed).