Memory: making, remembering, and forgetting

Memory: making, remembering, and forgetting

Some types of memories last longer than others in different parts of the brain. 

Our brains are bombarded with information from the moment we're born. How do we remember everything we've learned? Memories

Humans remember different things for different amounts of time. Long-term memories last years, not seconds or hours. We have a working memory that lets us remember something by repeating it. To remember a phone number, you use your working memory.

Memories can also be categorized by their subject and whether you are consciously aware of them. Declarative memory is conscious memory. Some of these memories are facts or "common knowledge," like Lisbon or the number of cards in a deck (52). Others include childhood birthdays.

Nondeclarative memory is built unconsciously. Your body uses procedural memories to remember skills. Play an instrument or bike? You're using procedural memory. Nondeclarative memories can shape your body's unthinking responses, like salivating at your favorite food or tensing when you see something you fear.


Memory matching games can be stressful.

Declarative memories are easier to form. Memorizing a country's capital is faster than learning the violin. Nondeclarative memories last longer. Once you learn, you won't forget.

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Amnesia types

Neuroscientists study amnesia, the loss of memories or learning ability, to understand how we remember. Amnesia is usually caused by a head injury, stroke, brain tumor, or chronic alcoholism.

Amnesia has two types. Retrograde amnesia involves forgetting things you knew before brain trauma. Anterograde amnesia prevents people from forming new memories.

Henry Molaison had parts of his brain removed in 1953 as a last-ditch treatment for severe seizures. While H.M. Molaison remembered his childhood, he couldn't form new declarative memories. People who worked with him for decades had to reintroduce themselves each time.

Scientists can trace where and how memories form in the brain by studying H.M. and animals with brain damage. Short-term, long-term, declarative, and procedural memories don't form in the same way.

Different parts of the brain form and store different types of memories using different processes. The amygdala processes emotions like fear. The striatum stores learned skills. The hippocampus forms, stores, and recalls declarative memories. H.M.'s missing temporal lobes help form and recall memories.

Memory formation, storage, and recall

Since the 1940s, scientists have believed memories are stored in cell assemblies, groups of neurons. These interconnected cells fire as a group in response to a stimulus, like a friend's face or freshly baked bread. More neuronal activity strengthens cell connections. So, a future stimulus is more likely to trigger the whole assembly. Nerve activity creates memories. Scientists are still figuring it out.

Memory consolidation strengthens short-term memories for long-term storage. Several processes may cause consolidation. Long-term potentiation involves nerves growing and communicating differently with neighbors. Long-term nerve remodeling stabilizes memory. Scientists figured out long-term potentiation by studying California sea slugs. All animals with long-term memories use the same basic cellular machinery. Not all long-term memories start as short-term.

Can we feel better by changing our memory?

Can we erase or replace bad memories to improve our mental health? Steve Ramirez, 2015 National Geographic Emerging Explorer, is pioneering ways to manipulate memories to treat PTSD, depression, and Alzheimer's. National Geographic Live Events The National Geographic Live series features today's top explorers, scientists, photographers, and performers. Each presentation is filmed in Washington, D.C. Monday clips are broadcast. National Geographic Explorers online! Twitter, Facebook

As we recall a memory, many parts of our brain rapidly communicate, including regions that do high-level information processing, regions that handle our senses' raw inputs, and the medial temporal lobe, which seems to coordinate the process. According to a recent study, when patients recalled newly formed memories, nerve activity in the medial temporal lobe synchronized with ripples in the brain's cortex.

Memory remains mysterious. How do neurons encode memories? How widespread are memory-encoding brain cells? How does brain activity affect memory? These research areas may one day shed light on brain function and memory-related disorders.

Recent research shows that some memories must be "reconsolidated" when recalled. If so, remember that something can temporarily strengthen, weaken, or alter it. During reconsolidation, medications can more easily target memories, which could help treat PTSD.


Memory at the NIH

Neuroscience, Third Edition

Behavioral Brain Research, Skill-Memory

Current Biology, Memory Reconsolidation

Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, digit-span

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