Have you ever had a memory so powerful, you felt it left a scar on your cerebral tissue? This is how American philosopher and psychologist William James described “flashbulb memories,” or a memory that revolves around a particularly vivid event. As it turns out, our memories might not be as accurate as we believe. General memory accuracy often declines over time, but with specific types of memories, typically associated with vivid events, accuracy decreases while confidence over recall increases. 

The mind, and particularly the memory, is an infinitely interesting and fickle element of a person. It’s the centre of our identity, yet many details we remember about our past may well be inaccurate. Before you set off towards an identity crisis, fear not; memory can be trained. Today we look under the skin at the inner workings of the brain and mind in a bid to uncover some tips for training and retaining memories.

Forming Strong Memories 

Current theory states the brain’s hippocampus is at least partly responsible for memory (the full complexity of the brain is still not fully understood and is, therefore, subject to change). Next to the hippocampus, you’ll find the amygdala: the emotional decryptor of the brain. There’s a connection between these two areas that demonstrate the complexity of memory formation; the amygdala links closely to the visual cortex of the brain. The visual cortex acts as the input for the amygdala to process and, depending on the input, the amygdala may in response ‘ask’ the visual cortex for more information. This vivid information then passes through this process to the hippocampus. If the quantity and quality of information are greater and it has an additional emotional attachment, it could become a strong memory. Similarly, the other senses, and how vivid the information received is (and in turn, how that’s processed by areas like the amygdala), show memory to be part of a much wider system. 

Let’s look at a simple example of a memory you take for granted like the colour blue. You may not think of your knowledge of the colour blue as a memory; this is because the connections regarding this information are so strong that you feel you barely engage your memory whatsoever to remember. Think of blue and you might see the deep shade of a lake, the ink of the pen that signed your mortgage or Zooey Deschanel’s character Summer in the 2009 film 500 Days of Summer who was consistently dressed in blue clothing. All these memories evoke an emotional response (for example) that strengthen the memory of the colour blue, and likewise, blue provides a roadmap for the brain to recall memories of the lake, mortgage and film. 

Understanding Memory

On a cellular level, the brain makes connections between neurons through the 100 trillion synapses (give or take a few 100 billion) in our brains. A synapse is a term used to define the structure that allows signals to pass between neurons (a nerve cell in the brain). Information from various input elements, like the visual cortex, are transferred via these synapses; stronger connections (ones that are repeated for example) form memories over time; patterns or webs are formed between neurons which make producing the same connection easier.

It’s generally accepted that there are three stages of the memory process: sensory, short-term and long-term. Our aim is to get the right information into our long-term memory and keep the connections strong, so we can recall that information easily. Join us next time as we look at the three processes.

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