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If you can read this, you have a functioning memory. How does your memory work? How do we store information? How do we retrieve it?
How does memory improve our lives, and how can an improved memory enhance our well-being? What do we know, and not know about memory?
Almost all living creatures have some kind of memory. Even DNA, and RNA, on which all forms of life on earth depend, are biochemical forms of memory.
The widely believed tale that goldfish have only a five-second memory is a myth. It is five point five seconds. No, just teasing.
The reason that the basic structure of jokes works is based on memory. We remember the indicated intention creates an expectation that it will be revealed that goldfish have a much greater memory than five seconds and that expectation is addressed in an unexpected way. Humour is dependent on expectation, which in turn is dependent on memory.
Each of the words you are now reading depends on your ability to remember each letter and what meaning it has when combined with other letters. Communication, in all its forms, is dependent on memory.
Not all memory is the same. We have three main categories.
Which lasts around one second. That is, for example, when you experience a sensation in your body, the memory of it is very brief. Yes, we can describe intense pain for years afterwards, but the sensory memory itself is transient.
Which can store seven chunks of information, (plus or minus two – meaning that the normal human range of short-term memory is from five to nine chunks), and lasts for around one minute, unless refreshed.
Which lasts for a lifetime, and has no known upper limit on its capacity, subject to there being no brain damage.
Long-term memory can be broken down into further sub-categories, including conscious and unconscious memory.
Unconscious memory includes skills that have been developed to the point of unconscious competence, such as the one you are using now to read, (or listen to), this sentence in English. It is often referred to as procedural memory. Two elements of the memory you are using now have reached unconscious competence: reading, and processing English.
Conscious memory can be further sub-categorised as declarative memory, which, in turn, consists of episodic and semantic memory, that is, events and experiences, and, facts and concepts.
That list of classifications might give the impression that there is a scientific understanding of memory. Let’s explore whether there is, or is not.
What would we expect if we understood memory?
- We would be able to say where memory was stored. Can we? Yes, it seems to be stored in the brain, and that is as precise as we can be. We just don’t know where. Here is the problem. In other living creatures, which do not have a sophisticated cortex, there is still evidence of the ability to remember. So, the cortex, at best we can say, is involved. Whether it is necessary or not, is not known.
- We would be able to say which parts of the brain do what in regard to memory. Yes, we can observe parts of the brain being more active when memory is at work.
In the same way as a stone age person suddenly brought to life today, would see the wheels of a car turning as it moved and make all sorts of wild inferences (magic, evil spirits, Gods), when we observe brain activity we can only speculate. We just don’t know specifically which parts of the brain are doing what, even when we think they are involved.
- We would be able to say how the brain decided where it was going to store a memory. Sorry, no one can do that. Here, too, we are clueless.
- We would know at a cellular level how information was stored in the brain. We would be able to specify what biochemical, or quantum mechanical changes were used to store memories. Here, too, we are the stone-aged person marvelling at a jet shooting across the sky.
- We would understand how the brain keeps a track of which memories were stored where. We can think of this as meta-memory. For any memory system to work, it is reasonable to assume that there is a system to allocate a specific storage location and keeps a record of that location, so that the memory could be recalled on demand. Here too we have as much understanding as a slug has of quantum mechanics.
- We would understand how meta-memory communicates with consciousness. To have the desire to recall any memory, there has to be an awareness that said memory exists. How does the brain know what memories are available for recall? That suggests that there is an awareness above meta-memory, perhaps we can call it uber-meta-memory. How does this higher level of memory awareness work? Where does it reside? Again, we are devoid of insight.
- We would understand how information is transmitted from consciousness to wherever it is stored. We don’t.
- We would be able to intercept and understand how to decode any bio-electrical signal on its way to its memory storage location. We cannot.
While we know next to nothing about how memory actually works, we do know many ways in which to improve memory and learning.
When we improve our memories, it brings all sorts of life enhancements. We can remember birthdays, anniversaries, phone numbers, names, and people’s likes and dislikes. All of which makes getting along with others easier and more pleasant for all.
When we apply our memory to health and exercise, the knowledge we have acquired and remembered can help us to live longer and healthier lives, mentally and physically.
Great teachers, throughout history, have figured out ways to help their students remember. If you want to improve your memory, learning what techniques are used by master teachers is a great start.
Even though our understanding of how memory works at an anatomical, cellular, and even quantum mechanical level, is at a stone age level, we do know how to improve our memories, and what benefit that brings.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.