How does Human Memory Work?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Human memory consists of information patterns being stored temporarily or permanently in the interconnection patterns and synaptic weightings among neurons in the brain. Although specific brain regions such as the hippocampus, amygdala, cerebellum, and basal ganglia have been implicated as being highly involved in specific aspects of memory, many researchers believe that memory may be a "field phenomenon" of the brain — not localized strongly in any one point, but in the entirety of the interconnective map that makes up the brain. This would be consistent with the observation that evolution prefers redundancy and animals with critical functions localized in any particular brain structure would be more subject to the degenerative threats of malnutrition or injury than those with distributed functions.

Episodic memory is often triggered by scent.
Episodic memory is often triggered by scent.

There are three ways of classifying memory. They include duration of retention, information type, and temporal direction. Duration of retention is seen as the most universal and useful.

The hippocampus has a prominent role in formation of memories.
The hippocampus has a prominent role in formation of memories.

From the perspective of duration of retention, there are three memory types: sensory, short term memory (STM) and long term memory (LTM). Sensory memory operates 200-500 ms immediately after a perceptual event and can hold approximately 12 items for a negligible quantity of time. Occasionally, experiences that begin as sensory memories transfer to short term memory, which can hold 5, plus or minus 2 items without rehearsal for somewhere between a minute to an hour. This type is responsible for the "phonological loop" — our internal monologue reciting something to remember it.

A person's long-term memory will help them recall Christmas' from their childhood.
A person's long-term memory will help them recall Christmas' from their childhood.

The type that is most pervasive, and with the largest capacity, is long-term memory. Long-term memories are built especially well through repetition and training and the complex web of memories that associate freely with other memories. Sometimes this web of long-term memories is called knowledge.

Photos can help trigger memories.
Photos can help trigger memories.

Within long-term memory, there are declarative (explicit) and procedural (implicit) memories. Procedural memories are motor-based and controlled by older sections of the brain. They include things like learning how to ride a bike. Declarative memory, which further breaks down into semantic and episodic/autobiographical memories, are at the core of what we consider the human experience. Semantic memories are abstract knowledge and the recital of facts, and episodic memories contain stories. The two types of declarative memory are intimately interrelated. If anything in this article was new to a reader, he or she has just added some substantial information to his or her semantic memory database.

Short-term memory may be utilized to remember a number looked up in a telephone book.
Short-term memory may be utilized to remember a number looked up in a telephone book.
Information stored as declarative memory tends to fade quickly unless it is often used.
Information stored as declarative memory tends to fade quickly unless it is often used.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

AnissimovM

Thanks, that was interesting. Hopefully psychologists will do more studies in meditation.

spasiba

Science Daily News, June 26, 2007. The article "Meditate to Concentrate" explains the study and findings, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, on the effects of meditation and the workings of the brain.

AnissimovM

Point us to a scientific study.

spasiba

It appears that practitioners of meditation reap multiple benefits, some of which are a more focused, and organized thinking processes, and a better memory.

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