All About Memory

Memory makes us who we are. If we couldn’t recall the who, what, where, and when of our everyday lives, we would struggle to learn new information, form lasting relationships, or even function in most daily situations. Memory allows the brain to encode, store, and retrieve information in three basic forms. To start, we process stimuli instantaneously with our sensory memory; that information is typically held in the brain for less than one second, which may help explain why most people report that when shown an object quickly, they feel like they take in more details than they're able to recall later. Next, the information is transferred to our short-term memory (also known as working memory), which allows us to mull things over in the present and hold important information in our minds. Finally, we store past events and patterns learned over time in our long-term memory, also known as episodic or semantic memory.

Different areas of the brain play a part in different aspects of memory. The hippocampus, for instance, is related to spatial memory, which helps us map the world around us and find our way around a place we've been before. The amygdala, on the other hand, is linked to emotional memory, including the recollection of fear. Research is being done on the genetics of memory—and particularly a possible genetic root for Alzheimer's disease—but the science is still preliminary; it's hard to know why some people remember things much more efficiently than others.

Memory Mixups

Memory is malleable, and many researchers believe that it can be improved. But it also tends to decline naturally as we age and it can be corrupted by dementia as well as brain injury, trauma, or repeated stress. Even without impairment, though, human memory is notoriously untrustworthy: Studies have shown that people can be easily persuaded to conjure false memories—even suddenly “remembering” that they committed a crime that never actually occurred—while events that did occur can’t be recalled with perfect accuracy. Eyewitness memory is critical in criminal cases—but some experts wonder if the human brain should be fully trusted in a court of law.

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