Every bit of information we process through our senses – sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste, is taken in through our short-term memory and filtered through neurotransmitters to be stored or thrown out. Sounds simple? It may sound simple, but the brain and how it processes memory is a complex system, and it involves thousands of different factors working together to work properly.

The average human brain can store 100 trillion bits of information, but we often forget this information seconds after we brought it in. What we choose to imprint on a more permanent level is affected by your personal motivation, wishes, fears and fantasies at the time, and the amount of interference or background forces that are taking place at the time your are taking in the information.

The hippocampus area of the brain processes the information it takes in as it comes in, receiving it, encoding it, and then molding it into a form the cerebral cortex can store, retain and retrieve. Memory neurotransmitters, called acetylcholine, transmit the nerve impulses needed to store the information. The acetylcholine transmission is not received normally in chronic memory loss and dementia. With more severe cases of memory loss, like Alzheimer’s, not only does the acetylcholine connection miss, but the brain gradually acquires toxic substances and deteriorates.

Researchers are currently trying to come up with a vaccine that will block the toxins accumulating in the brain and preserve the acetylcholine connections that are vital to memory. For this reason it is imperative that early detection of Alzheimer’s offers a better chance to lead a normal life than if it goes undetected until it is full-blown. Alzheimer’s is not reversible at this time, and brain cells are killed off. Hopefully, with a vaccine and early detection, the disease may not shorten the life of the patient.

Why does most of our memory fade so quickly? Our brain retains information when we have cue, hook or ties to the information through experience or previous exposure. If we do not have cues the information is lost in favor of input that does have some personal value and is lost within a few seconds. Information taken in is encoded. What we want to retain longer is moved, stored and retained – for a moment or through a lifetime. Long-term memory is unlimited, and this information is available for recall.

In layman’s terms, in order to understand our ability to remember and retrieve information we ask you to picture your memory as a library, where items are recorded (encoded) in a card catalog and stored on shelves in sections. If you want to retrieve information you need to go to the proper section and shelf.

Two memory systems need to be in place in order for the process to work efficiently and there is no backlog of information. One system is for short-term memory and the other is for long-term memory. All information passes through a narrow channel where it is only held for a brief few seconds and encoded. It then moves along (like a conveyor) to either be dumped or to be processed for long-term memory.

How and what you remember is determined by a the experience you bring to the information. There is a corresponding physical change taking place in the brain whenever something is remembered. It depends on how you are thinking about the information, how you can relate it to something in your life, and how many distractions you had as you were trying to process it. Your memory is influenced by perspective, accuracy and distortion. Example: You are asked to look at a photo of an office for a minute and then asked to recall as much of what you saw as you can. You remember items that you usually expect to see in an office – like a desk and chair, and then falsely recall items that weren’t there, but are usually part of an office.

Understanding how memories are made will help you learn how to improve your memory, and even be able to stop diseases like Alzheimer’s from taking control of your brain.

This is Ron White, two-time USA Memory Champion , memory training expert, and memory keynote speaker.




Discovering Psychology – The Biology of Memory, by Diana Woodruff-Pak: http://www.learner.org/discoveringpsychology/09/e09expand.html

Annenberg Learner, Wayne State University,  Remembering and Forgetting: http://www.learner.org/vod/vod_window.html?pid=1528