Memory Is a Complicated Process of The Brain
Our memory is in large part a central component of who we are.
For a long time, doctors and scientists viewed your memory as a set of filing cabinets where you store information to later be recalled, or a neural supercomputer that keeps data floating around till it’s needed. This is reflected in most folks thinking of memory as a thing in their bodies, like your eyes or sense of smell. Memory isn’t just an aggregate of past experiences; rather it’s a complicated brain process that follows a pattern of rules.
Indeed, it is the experiences (real or perceived) that help us make sense of our surroundings and most importantly, ourselves. Your memory is actually comprised of a group of systems in your brain that each play a different role in creating, storing and recalling your memories. It is the conjunction of these systems that provides you with a cohesive thought or memory.
For instance, think of a memory you have with a favorite pet. Your brain retrieves the pet’s name, shape, characteristics, functions, even the feel of its fur against your palm. Each part of this memory comes from a different region of the brain. Your mental image of the pet doesn’t just come from a file cabinet in your brain labeled “pet memories”, it’s actively reconstructed from many different areas of the brain. Neurologists are only now starting to understand how the different parts of the brain work together to give you your memories. To give a clearer picture of this process, let’s look at first how the brain encodes the information it receives and then how it is recalled.
All memories begin with the perception of stimulus. This is occurs when our senses gather information about your surrounding and it’s encoded and stored in your brain. The brain uses the language of electricity and chemicals to tell your synapses and neurons what they perceive. As a new memory is formed your brain literally changes its electrical and chemical make up to accommodate the new information. This could be as simple as remembering to use potholders when cooking or as complex as memorizing a new language.
When you remember anything, you do so on an unconscious level, in that you can’t force yourself to remember anything the mind doesn’t want to or hasn’t already stored. It is a misnomer to believe you have a “good” or “bad” memory; most people are fairly good at remembering some types of things and not as good remembering others. When you fail to remember something it’s most likely the result of a part of your memory system not working optimally.
Your memory is not a singular part of your brain and who you are, instead, it is a complex process with several factors attributing to its function. When thinking of your memory, view it more as a multi-facetted process that helps your brain learn and adapt to your surroundings. There’s an old saying that goes: “Memory is like…eh…you know, something.” It’s always hard to remember how that one ends.
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