How Human Memory Works:
Can you remember what your first memory is? For most of us, it is fairly mundane and is often prompted by being asked to talk about the details. This might explain why the age at which a memory first sticks varies across cultures. Among the Maori of New Zealand, for example, most children’s memories start a year earlier than they do in North America or Europe, as a function of their culture is discussing and honouring memories according to researcher Carole Peterson of Memorial University (Newfoundland).
People’s earliest memories are likely to be fictional – in that they never in fact occurred. Rather than recalling an experience event, we recall imagery derived from photographs, home movies, shared family stories or events that frequently happen in infancy. These facts are linked with fragmentary visual imagery and are combined together to form the basis of these fictitious early memories. Over time, this combination of imagery and fact begins to be experiences as a memory. Our brains when we are 2-3 years old are ephemeral because the hippocampus (key for long-term memories) is still maturing. When you reach the age of 8-10, you have forgotten about two thirds of your memories before the age of three, it is only when you reach the ages of 10-12 that your long-term memory begins to see huge improvements.
So, what is the first step in creating a memory?
Encoding is the first step in creating a memory, it’s a biological phenomenon, rooted in the senses that begins with perception. Each of the separate sensations you feel when you first meet someone, for example, travel to a part of your brain called the hippocampus, which integrates these perceptions as they are occurring into one single experience.
As you learn and experience the world, more connections in your brain are created by your nerve cells, (including synapses and dendrites), your brain organises and re-organises itself in response to your experiences, forming memories triggered by the effects of outside input prompted by experience, education and training.
How is your memory stored?
Once your memory is created, it has to be stored, and it does this in mainly three ways: sensory stage, short-term memory and then long-term memory. It’s your sensory memory that allows a perception such as a visual pattern, a sound, or a touch to linger for a brief moment after the stimulation is over. After that first flicker, the sensation is stored in short-term memory: which can hold about seven items for no more than 20-30 seconds at a time. This can be altered however, by using different strategies such as repeating things to yourself – which resets your short-term memory clock.
Important information is gradually transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory. The more the information is repeated or used, the more likely it is to eventually end up in long-term memory, or to be “retained.” (That’s why studying helps people to perform better on tests.) Unlike sensory and short-term memory, which are limited and decay rapidly, long-term memory can store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely.
How do I remember something?
When you want to remember something, you retrieve the information on an unconscious level, bringing it into your conscious mind at will. (sort of creepy huh?!) If you’ve forgotten something, it may be because you didn’t encode it very effectively, distractions that occur while you’re trying to remember something can really get in the way of encoding memories. If you’re trying to read a business report in the middle of a busy airport, you may think you’re remembering what you read, but you may not have effectively saved it in your memory.
Just like cramming the night before an exam, the information can be encoded by the brain based on the simple characteristics of the words, rather than the meaning, but it is only stored in short-term memory and therefore only retained for a short period.
Memories make up the ongoing experience of your life, they provide you with a sense of self. They are what make you feel comfortable with familiar people and surroundings, tie your past with your present, and provide a framework for the future. In a profound way, it is our collective set of memories – our ‘memory’ as a whole, that makes us who we are.