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Biology 103
2003 First Paper
On Serendip

How does Memory Work? Can We Improve Our Memories?

Flicka Michaels

How does memory work? Is it possible to improve your memory? In order to answer these questions, one must look at the different types of memory and how memory is stored in a person's brain.Memory is the mental process of retaining and recalling information or experiences. (1) It is the process of taking events, or facts and storing them in the brain for later use. There are three types of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Sensory memories are momentary recordings of information in our sensory systems. They are memories evoked through a person's five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. Although sensory memory is very brief, different sensory memories last for different amounts of time. Iconic memory is visual sensory memory and it lasts for less than a second. Echoic memory is auditory sensory memory and it lasts for less than 4 seconds. For example, if a person smells a certain smell, the olfactory tract in their nose sends signals to certain parts of the brain called the limbic system. (2) This system helps store the memory of the smell in the brain so that when the person smells the smell again, he or she will remember it.

Short term memory (also called working memory) is the recording of information that is currently being used. However, short term memory only lasts about twenty seconds. George Miller, who calculated the human memory span, found that it can contain at any time 7 chunks (any letter, word, digit, or number) of information. (2) When the brain receives signals of information, the information can be repeated over and over until it is stored, therefore creating a "phonological loop". (4) However, unless a repetition of the information occurs, it will be lost.

Long term memory is the capacity to store information over a long period of time. The capacity for long term memory is unlimited since it can be stored one minute ago or one year ago, and the information can still be retrievable at any time. Some scientists believe that parts of long term memory are permanent while others will eventually weaken over time. (3) Long term memory can be divided into three sections: procedural memory, declarative memory, and remote memory. Procedural memory includes motor skills such as learning how to ride a bike or how to drive a car. "Such memories are slow to acquire but more resistant to change or loss." (4) Declarative memory is used to remember facts, such as names, dates and places. It is easy to learn but also easy to lose. Finally there is episodic memory, which is the record of events that a person stores throughout his or her experience. Recent studies show that these events, as soon as they occur, are sent to a temporary part of the brain called the hippocampus, and that over time they are moved to the neocortex for permanent storage. (5).

When speaking about memory, one needs to look at the parts of the brain that are
involved in memory storage. The hippocampus is a place in the brain that is used to
"transfer memories from short-term to long term memory". (1) It also helps store spatial memories with the thalamus. The thalamus is a "collection of nuclei that relays sensory information from the lower centers to the cerebral cortex". (7) In addition to spatial memories, the thalamus helps store emotional memories with the amygdala. The amygdala is a nuclear formation that helps store both conscious and unconscious emotions, and it is part of the limbic system. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that stores motor skills as well as knowledge of social behavior and the demonstration of personality. The cerebellum is the main part of the brain concerned with motor coordination, posture, and balance. The hippocampus, the amygdala, and the cerebellum are all part of the brain's limbic system.(7)

Now that we know how memory works, we can address the issue of how a person can improve his or her memory. There is a learning technique called mnemonics, which is designed to help people "remember information that is otherwise quite difficult to recall." (5) There are many ways to use mnemonics to help one's memory. Some scientists believe that speaking while you are reading will help you to absorb the material. Others believe that writing information down will help your brain to recognize it and store it more easily. Another effective way to remember facts is to associate it with other facts or other objects, which you can link back to the original piece of information. So, there are in fact many ways that one can improve one's memory if one tries.

In conclusion, memory is the storing of information in the brain over a certain
period of time. The three kinds of memory (sensory, short term and long term) use
different parts of the brain to store information, and therefore can store it for different lengths of time. A person can improve his or her memory through techniques called mnemonics, which use patterns and associations to help the brain store information more accurately. Memory is also a relevant topic to many biological issues today. New studies are constantly being done to connect memory to dreams and to the deterioration of the brain in Alzheimer's disease. But what we know about memories is that they are directly connected to the brain and the signals the brain receives when one learns new information. One day, hopefully, new technology might allow us to look inside a person's brain and see their memories or even retrieve memories that they have pushed away.


1) Memory Basics

2)U of A Cog Sci Dictionary

3) Brain Power

4) Memory and the Brain

5) UTCS Neural Nets Group Research

6) Mind Tools-Introduction to Memory Techniques

7)Memory in the Brain

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