By: S. Costa Franco
Picture from: shorturl.at/buR79
Psychology, studying for tests, 2015 Pixar film 'Inside Out'. These are common things we associate with the subject of memory. But in truth, we collectively know less about our memories than we might be willing to admit.
As most of us are not scientists, the information we have about our brains, how we remember things, and exactly what we remember, is strikingly limited, as this tends to come from sources such as media, films, and the content we surround ourselves with daily, which is susceptible to over-simplification and caters mostly to our enjoyment, rather than learning. We might often picture memories as snapshots that our minds take of everything we encounter during our life, and in some way or another, this is stored in the bundle of nerves we know as our brain. However, this process is far more complex and less straightforward than we think.
All this reflection begs the questions; what exactly are memories, what misconceptions do we have about them, and why do we perceive memory in this way? Let's attempt to find out.
What are memories?
Memory is essentially our brain's capacity to store information about events and experiences that we are subjected to throughout our lives. This can occur in the form of visual images, sensory stimuli, and emotions. The main thing we must know about memories is that there are three main processes involved in acquiring them: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Still, we have sat in front of a biology test and been unable to remember a specific keyword or definition, and so we know quite well that these processes are by no means perfect. Memories can be forgotten, or sometimes, our minds might not have encoded them correctly in the first place.
The way in which memories are formed consists of something we might see, feel, hear, sense, taste, or smell during the day being detected by sensory receptors around our bodies. If this is a visual stimulus, for instance, it would likely be detected by photo-receptive cells in our eyes, or more specifically in our retinas, and then be transported to the brain via the optic nerve, to later be encoded into a series of electrical neuro-signals. These signals would then be stored in an area of our subconscious that we rarely access unless it is needed. The process of retrieval is then as known bringing memories into our conscious awareness.
Now, you have likely heard of terms such as short-term and long-term memory. This nomenclature refers to the question of how long memories last. In actual fact, there are three differing types of memories that remain in our brains for different periods of time. The first of these is sensory memories, occurring when we experience some external stimuli, and record them in our minds only for very brief amounts of time. While visual images last approximately half a second, auditory stimuli tend to last about 3-4 seconds. There are some elements from these experiences, nonetheless, that can be carried on into our short-term memory. Short-term memory, also known as active memory, is, in Freudian Psychology, a reference to the memory contained within our conscious mind. In other words, these are the brief aspects we remember from our sensory memories, typically lasting about 20-30 seconds. A distinction must be made between this and our working memory, as working memory is defined as the memories we make use of in the present moment to achieve certain tasks. Long-term memory, consequentially, deals with all the information stored in our unconscious or preconscious minds, hence, information we are not consistently aware of, but that can be drawn into our working memory when needed. This is why teachers might encourage you to often revise and look over your notes, to transport them from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. That way, this information lasts longer, you are less likely to forget it, and can recall it later if necessary.
Despite all of this, forgetting things is still common. This can range from silly mistakes such as forgetting where you put your phone, to far more serious neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. The act of forgetting can be a result of failure to store memories, interference in the encoding or storage processes, active attempts to forget certain things (for instance our brain usually suppresses embarrassing or unpleasant memories), and finally, failure to retrieve information from your long-term memory. Helpful methods to avoid easily forgetting memories include writing them down, attaching meaning or significance to them, repeating them, and grouping them together.
Being that the concept of memory can be so complex, and many sources that we access to gather information on this topic are inaccurate, our society has collected quite an amalgamation of misconceptions when it comes to grasping how we remember things. Some of the main errors when approaching this subject include the assumptions that:
2. If you are not a visual learner, you won't be able to retain information.
Many of us have heard and used the expression “visual learner”, which refers to how we best assimilate information. Some of us may need to visualize things, using images and diagrams, to further understand them, while others learn better through listening, or writing things down. Nevertheless, some individuals believe that memory requires visualization, and so those who are not visual learners have trouble remembering things. The truth is, visualization does not happen in front of your eyes, but rather, in your mind. If you are able to create an image in your head and associate it with the concept you are trying to learn, you are likely to remember it better. However, you can associate any sensory experience with a piece of information, such as sound, taste, movement (such as writing), and hence, attach a mental tag to something. This will surely help you remember things, and anyone can do this, no matter what kind of learner you are.
3. Human memory is episodic, like a video camera, accurately recording all our experiences.
A survey published in the United States in 2011 stated that 63% of 1,838 respondents believed the claim above. This is likely one of the most prevalent, and inaccurate misconceptions that we hold about our memory. In truth, our memories are not neatly ordered and separated in our minds in such a way that they remain perfectly preserved and can be retrieved whenever it is necessary. We often encode events differently to how they occurred, and each time we retrieve this memory, depending on the context in which this is done, the memory can be distorted. Sadly, memory is not so organized and preservable as we choose to believe.
4. Once you have formed a memory of an event, that memory remains unchanged.
This notion is similar to the point mentioned above, as it questions the simplicity of our memory retention. Not only can the events experienced following the formation of such a memory influence how the memory is in fact recalled, but the emotional attachment we create to a memory can alter the factual recollection of it. In other words, our memories can change each time we connect a feeling with them when we retrieve them from our subconscious, potentially ensuring that the resemblance between the memory we possess and how this in fact took place, fades.
5. Confidence equates to effective memory retention.
Imagine a court room scene. The eyewitness recounts the events exactly as they recall them taking place and assures the jury that they are confident what they say is true. We are far more likely to believe this person over a witness that stutters and stumbles over their words, unsure of the tale they tell. However, since we have observed that memory is a dynamic entity, this assumption could very well be false. As was explored in the two previous points, memories can be tampered with, and transform according to how we retrieve them, so an eyewitness's recollection of events could easily have been altered in the context of why they are recounting it, independent of how confident they appear to be.
6. People who suffer from some form of amnesia can often forget their own identity.
Now this misconception applies less to our everyday lives, as few of us personally know an individual who suffers from amnesia, but it is nonetheless quite fascinating. The reason that, on average, 83% of us believe the untrue statement above is that media heavily plays into this myth. Experts have recently debunked this idea, however. In truth, patients of amnesia can often remember their childhood, and much of what happened before the brain damage took place. Being affected by amnesia consists of the lack of ability to form new long-term memories, hence why patients often forget what they experience after acquiring the illness, but this does not necessarily mean that long-term memories that existed prior to this are done away with.
7. There is a limit to the amount of information the brain can hold.
Many pupils, especially during exam week, have a tendency to state that their brain is “saturated”, and they simply cannot withhold more information. On the other hand, Paul Reber, director of the Brain, Behavior and Cognition program at Northwestern University begs to differ, claiming that while the brain does have its limit, this boundary is far beyond anyone's understanding. Some time ago, as people began to delve into the intricacies of memory, it was believed that one could not retain over 20 digits within their mind and repeat them aloud. This record has now been broken many times over. The idea is that the boundaries of memory are continuously broken, and so rather than impose limits on ourselves, it is far more interesting to test how far we can go.
In all, what does all of this tell us? Well, when it comes to science, we must be wary of the content we consume that leads us to certain conclusions. Questioning the media around us and conducting our own scientific inquiry can cause us to discover much about the world around us that we previously thought of differently, and allow us to uncover our own errors. It is evident that memory and the way our mind works is a fascinating thing, and, delving into this accurately can lead us to develop our capacity for remembering things, helping us become better learners and thinkers.
Let us all unleash our curiosity and discover our biological limits and possibilities, because one thing is for certain: when it comes to learning about our minds, we can never be bored!