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What Is Memory?

Memory is the faculty by which the brain encodes, stores, and retrieves information. It is a record of experience that guides future action.

Memory encompasses the facts and experiential details that people consciously call to mind as well as ingrained knowledge that surface without effort or even awareness. It is both a short-term cache of information and the more permanent record of what one has learned. The types of memory described by scientists include episodic memory, semantic memory, procedural memory, working memory, sensory memory, and prospective memory.

Each kind of memory has distinct uses—from the vivid recollections of episodic memory to the functional know-how of procedural memory. Yet there are commonalities in how memory works overall, and key brain structures, such as the hippocampus, that are integral to different kinds of memory.

In addition to memory’s role in allowing people to understand, navigate, and make predictions about the world, personal memories provide the foundation for a rich sense of one’s self and one’s life—and give rise to experiences such as nostalgia.

Problems With Memory

Memory loss is the unavoidable flipside of the human capacity to remember. Beyond the normal forgetting that happens every day throughout life, some decline in memory ability with age is typical—and there are strategies for coping with such loss. In more severe cases, however, memory can be permanently damaged by dementia and other disorders of memory.

Memory is also a key element in certain mental health conditions. As a feature of post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, and other disorders, aberrant or biased memory function can also be a target for treatment.

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Building Better Memory

Though memory naturally declines with age, many people are able to stay mentally sharp. How do they do it? Genes play a role, but preventative measures including regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and getting plenty of sleep—as well as keeping the brain active and challenged—can help stave off memory loss.

The science of memory also highlights ways anyone can improve their memory, whether the goal is sharpening memory ability for the long term or just passing exams this semester. Through committed practice with memory-enhancing techniques, some people train themselves to remember amazing quantities of information—though for a small number of people, extraordinary memory abilities come naturally.

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