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Memory is a continually unfolding process. Initial details of an experience take shape in memory; the brain’s representation of that information then changes over time. With subsequent reactivations, the memory grows stronger or fainter and takes on different characteristics. Memories reflect real-world experience, but with varying levels of fidelity to that original experience.

The degree to which the memories we form are accurate or easily recalled depends on a variety of factors, from the psychological conditions in which information is first translated into memory to the manner in which we seek—or are unwittingly prompted—to conjure details from the past.

How Memories Are Made

The creation of a memory requires a conversion of a select amount of the information one perceives into more permanent form. A subset of that memory will be secured in long-term storage, accessible for future use. Many factors during and after the creation of a memory influence what (and how much) gets preserved.

Why do we create memories?

Memory serves many purposes, from allowing us to revisit and learn from past experiences to storing knowledge about the world and how things work. More broadly, a major function of memory in humans and other animals is to help ensure that our behavior fits the present situation and that we can adjust it based on experience.

What is encoding?

Encoding is the first stage of memory. It is the process by which the details of a person’s experience are converted into a form that can be stored in the brain. People are more likely to encode details of what they are paying attention to and details that are personally significant.

How Memories Are Stored in the Brain

While memories are usually described in terms of mental concepts, such as single packages of personal experience or specific facts, they are ultimately reducible to the workings and characteristics of the ever-firing cells of the brain. Scientists have narrowed down regions of the brain that are key to memory and developed an increasingly detailed understanding of the material form of these mental phenomena.

What parts of the brain are important for memory?

The hippocampus and other parts of the medial temporal lobe are critical for many forms of memory, though various other parts of the brain play roles as well. These include areas of the more recently evolved cerebral cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, as well as deep-seated structures such as the basal ganglia. The amygdala is important for memory as well, including the integration of emotional responses into memory. The extent to which different brain regions are involved in memory depends on the type of memory.

How is memory stored in the brain?

Memory involves changes to the brain’s neural networks. Neurons in the brain are connected by synapses, which are bound together by chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) to form larger networks. Memory storage is thought to involve changes in the strength of these connections in the areas of the brain that have been linked to memory. 

How We Recall Memories

After memories are stored in the brain, they must be retrieved in order to be useful. While we may or may not be consciously aware that information is being summoned from storage at any given moment, this stage of memory is constantly unfolding—and the very act of remembering changes how memories are subsequently filed away.

What is retrieval?

Retrieval is the stage of memory in which the information saved in memory is recalled, whether consciously or unconsciously. It follows the stages of encoding and storage. Retrieval includes both intentional remembering, as when one thinks back to a previous experience or tries to put a name to a face, and more passive recall, as when the meanings of well-known words or the notes of a song come effortlessly to mind.

What is a retrieval cue?

A retrieval cue is a stimulus that initiates remembering. Retrieval cues can be external, such as an image, text, a scent, or some other stimulus that relates to the memory. They can also be internal, such as a thought or sensation that is relevant to the memory. Cues can be encountered inadvertently or deliberately sought in the process of deliberately trying to remember something.

False and Distorted Memories

Memories have to be reconstructed in order to be used, and the piecing-together of details leaves plenty of room for inaccuracies—and even outright falsehoods—to contaminate the record. These errors reflect a memory system that is built to craft a useful account of past experience, not a perfect one. (For more, see False Memories.)

How do memories become distorted?

Memories may be rendered less accurate based on conditions when they are first formed, such as how much attention is paid during the experience. And the malleability of memories over time means internal and external factors can introduce errors. These may include a person’s knowledge and expectations about the world (used to fill in the blanks of a memory) and misleading suggestions by other people about what occurred.

How are false memories created?

False memories can be as simple as concluding that you were shown a word that you actually weren’t, but it may also include believing you experienced a dramatic event that you didn’t. People may produce such false recollections by unwittingly drawing on the details of actual, related experiences, or in some cases, as a response to another person’s detailed suggestions (perhaps involving some true details) about an imaginary event that is purported to be real.

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