How Our Memory Works?
We are super brains!
“I can never remember that!” “I just knew it just now!” “I remember that very well!” Memory is a phenomenon that concerns everyone every day: at work while studying and in everyday situations. But how does memory work? Do we have to think of the brain as a computer that stores all incoming information and sorts it ready for retrieval? It is not that easy.
The brain sifts out
You notice it yourself every day: You can ride a bike without thinking about it, but you don’t remember the last name of your new colleague. You know what your car looks like, but not what you ate yesterday. And your wedding was an experience that you are still telling about today. The brain is your personal control centre that receives and evaluates the information in different ways: some things you remember for a lifetime, other information is lost immediately.
The “silent post” in your head
Our brain is a huge network of billions of nerve cells, the neurons. These are connected to up to 10,000 other neurons by synapses. If a nerve cell is stimulated by an incoming stimulus, it transmits an electrical impulse to its neighbouring cells. That means: if you remember a flower, for example, the picture of this flower corresponds to a certain connection of nerve cells.
The many properties of the flower are distributed across very different brain regions. The shape, the smell, the colour of the flower and the emotional meaning for you personally call you from different areas of your brain. Put together, this data gives the picture of the flower – with all the memories associated with it. So there is a very special connection pattern for all objects, for people and experiences.
Forget or remember?
The memory works with different systems: The sensory memory stores all incoming sensory stimuli for fractions of a second. The information is then either deleted or forwarded to short-term memory. This enables us to capture and filter a wealth of information for a very short time without conscious awareness.
In short-term memory …
the information is retained for a few seconds. For example, short-term memory can be used to remember a phone number without having to memorize it. The brain then either deletes the information immediately or transfers it to long-term memory via the medium-term memory. In addition, short-term memory functions like the working memory of a computer: It links information from the various memory stores at short notice and processes it consciously.
In the medium-term memory …
memories and events land that have already passed more than 30 minutes. It can store data for several days in order to transfer it from the short to the long-term memory by repeating it several times.
Long-term memory …
finally, all the information you want to keep permanently. But even data stored there can fade. Conversely, they can also remain accessible for a lifetime: According to human imagination, the receptivity of long-term memory is unlimited!
Memory with multiple hard drives
Did you know that long-term memory stores what you have learned in different memory memories? Bicycling, shoe-tying and other motor skills store procedural memory. We have internalized these skills and no longer have to think about them consciously.
Through perceptual memory, we recognize things and places by comparing them with what is already known. This happens unconsciously: We always recognize a car as a car – even if shapes and colours change. Without perceptual memory, we couldn’t orient ourselves in the world.
Semantic memory is our knowledge memory. This contains special data and facts about the world and its meaning as well as historical data, mathematical formulas or geographic knowledge. Personal experiences, on the other hand – the first kiss, the last vacation – are linked to certain places and times. We draw the relevant information from the autobiographical memory.
Researchers discovered the division into different types of memory when examining people who had partially lost their memory. Those affected suddenly no longer knew what their names were and where they came from – all data from their autobiographical memory was lost. However, the knowledge that was stored in the semantic memory was retained. In such cases, the person concerned knows, for example, that Berlin is the capital of Germany; however, he no longer knows that he himself lives in this city.
Is the brain malleable for a lifetime?
The brain stores new information in different areas. When learning, it constantly compares the incoming information with memories that have already been saved and creates new connections (associations). It refreshes the data through constant associations and by remembering previous experiences. Existing nerve tracts are changed and rewritten.
The brain of an adult can also change nerve pathways, enter new connection patterns and even form new brain cells. Memory does not necessarily decrease in old age. According to the latest knowledge, people can even increase their language skills steadily into old age!
So if you know how your brain works, that it prefers to work with a wide variety of connections, under what conditions it sifts or stores things, you can keep your performance at a high level.