A Brief Introduction To The Study Of Memory

Memory, memory, memory,…. Our best friend and our worst enemy. We want better memory to remember every happy seconds of our existence and to ace tests, but we also wish we could forget the times we made fools out of ourselves, we want to forget our failures, and so many people are haunted by traumatic memories that they wish they could erase forever.

Erasing Memories
  • Our memories of ourselves define who we are, who we like, what we dislike.
  • Memories of the world helps us navigate through space and time and discuss world events with friends.
  • Skill memory allows us to learn how to ride a bike once, and remember the skill for as long as our Central Nervous System allows us too.

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  • Needless to say, psychologists, neuroscientists and pharmaceutical companies have been after the holy grail of memory for ages.

We Don’t Even Know How Much We Don’t Know

Today, we know a TON about memory.

It takes a lifetime just to learn about one single tiny aspect of memory… That’s how much we know about how memory works. Yet, for all of our hard work, the amount we know is so ridiculously small that we can virtually do nothing with our knowledge.

We are very far from finding the super memory pill, or the pill that will erase specific memories, or from making a machine that can record our memories and dreams then give them back to us.
We are far from the dream recording technology of “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within“, or from the technology of the “Matrix” and of “Inception.”

Traditional Study of Memory

In the past, the study of memory belonged to psychologists and philosophers who sat down in their chairs and creatively came up with “box models” for how memory works, and arrows between the boxes to describe the processes.

Then came the time of computer geeks who self-proclaimed they could explain the way organic (biological) memory works in the same way as a computer’s memory works. They created even more “Box and arrow” models for memory.

This is basically the process a science-fiction writer goes through when coming up with a good story –

It’s all fake but it makes sense.

Modern Study of Memory

Finally came the time of biologists, geneticists, physiologists and neuroscientists. These people decided to stop with the creative imagination sessions and started looking at reality.

They opened Pandora’s box: they actually conducted experiments on the nervous system!!!

And we found out that the brain doesn’t work anywhere near the way a motherboard works, and the boxes and arrows have been replaced with electrophysiological graphs, synaptic diagrams, neurotransmitters, and neurotransmitter antagonists.

Neurosurgeons experimented on patients brains in order to save them. Unfortunately, those surgeries sometimes resulted in unexpected results. But what we learned from these “mistakes” has provided the rest of the world with incredible value.

H.M. The Most Famous Amnesia Patient.

H.M suffered from extremely violent seizures from a very young age. Nothing seemed to cure him.

One day, a neurosurgeon decided to try a new procedure that had been shown to provide relief from seizures: ablating parts of the hippocampus.

Unfortunately for HM, the neurosurgeon removed both his right and left hippocampus. When H.M. woke up, he was fine, and his seizures had greatly diminished. A great success!

However, it didn’t take long for people to realize that something was incredibly off with H.M. He couldn’t remember anything new at all! His past memories were still there, but he couldn’t remember anything new for more than a few seconds.

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  • This taught us that long-term memory is not stored in the hippocampus, but that somehow the hippocampus was necessary for the storage of long-term memories.

A few more years went by, and scientists realized something else. H.M. could learn new skills long-term,…. But he didn’t “know” he knew them. He could perform the skill, but could not remember ever learning the new skill.

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  • This taught us that there isn’t a single process for all memories. There are different types of memories, that follow different processes, and there is such a thing as “unconscious memory.”

We can remember things without ever knowing that we know them!

Up to that time we sought that memory had to be a conscious process.

Other cases of unfortunate brain damage has revealed even more complexities to the way memory works:

  • The memory for words describing objects is different from the memory for words describing people (yes, you can loose the memory for one type of words, without loosing the memory for the other type of words).
  • The visual memory for recognizing faces is different from the visual memory for recognizing other objects (again, you can loose the memory for one, without loosing the memory for the other).
  •  And many more…

What this shows us is that:

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  • There isn’t such a thing as a “box” for short-term memory, and a “box” for long-term memory and simple processes between them. Each memory is processed differently by the brain and stored in different places.
  • Memory is incredibly complex
  • We are not computers
  • Anyone who thinks something up and puts it down on paper is a science fiction writer. Logic does not equal reality. Something can make sense yet be totally fake. Good, useful, real science is performed by conducting experiments and looking at the results.

That being said, I love spending time daydreaming about the future, and I can’t wait for Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within’s “dream recording machine” to be created. I love good science as much as I love good science-fiction! 🙂

Everything has its purpose; I just wouldn’t want a science-fiction surgeon cutting through my brain!


More resources are available to help make Biology fun. I invite you to absorb all the content you can find here at Interactive-Biology.com.

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