Neuroscience of Memory

At the Merit Club we are fascinated with what makes our brains tick! Every Wednesday we will be digging a little deeper into this with our Neuroscience Wednesdays series. Finding videos and articles on subjects from love through to leadership and addiction, these blogs will cover a range of ideas and theories that help us understand our mind better, have the power to shape our lives and the way we think. 

This week on Neuroscience Wednesday, the Merit Club brings you Eleanor Maguire's talk on the importance of memories and how the brain isn't completely flawless.

We've all been there: We forget the name of someone from our past, a word we want to use, or that our best friend's birthday was last week. But why and how do we forget information? To understand our brains better, let's start with having a look at how memories are divided.

What are the different types of memory?

  1. STM (short-term memory) - For information that we need to hold onto or rehearse for immediate use. 

  2. LTM (long-term memory) - For skills and habits such as learning how to ride a bike and then knowing how to do that particular skill for life.

  3. Episodic/Autobiographical memories (this is another type of LTM) - Episodic memory is the memory of autobiographical events (times, places, associated emotions, and other contextual who, what, when, where, why knowledge). It is the collection of past personal experiences that occurred at a particular time and place.

Through 2 visual demos that were shown to the audience in the referenced video below, Eleanor Maguire proves that our memory isn’t 100% reliable, even when something has only just happened a quarter of a second ago. For example, when you've had a disagreement with your partner about something, do you ever find that certain memories are waiting there backstage to flood your brain with all the good times you had when you were single? As much as we would love to be able to remember everything with absolute clarity, our memory is intrinsically biased.  But why are we often unable to retrieve information from memory? One possible explanation of retrieval failure is known as decay theory. According to this theory, a memory trace is created every time a new theory is formed. Decay theory suggests that over time, these memory traces begin to fade and disappear. If the information is not retrieved and rehearsed, it will eventually be lost. Our brains are structured in such a way that we don’t remember every little detail, exactly as it happened. Some elements of our lives may become clouded or rose tinted. Indeed, our memories may be flawed. But is it not for good reason? 

Love, Pleasure & Memory

In a previous blog post on the neuroscience of love, we've discovered ways in which the chemical dopamine makes us feel pleasure. Dopamine is a multi-faced neurotransmitter. It provides communication between nerve cells as well as between nerve and muscle cells. Looking to the brains of people who were in the honeymoon period of their relationships, as an example, Scientists found that when shown pictures of their significant other, participants experienced a flood of dopamine to parts of their brains. As it turns out, brains need to release dopamine in order to store long-term memories too, and the more dopamine that is released in the brain the better your memory. Indeed, it seems that there are clear links between dopamine, love, pleasure and memory. Could this be part of the reason that we can be so good at remembering the details of a romantic date, or the first words of affection that your partner whispered? 

Memory is not all about the past! It’s also about having the power to form new memories.

Our powers of recall have a huge impact upon how we assess our lives in the present. Our brains can easily romanticise things that happened in the past, especially when we're thinking about our past relationships. When there are times that you are feeling lonely, you tend to think about how better life was when you had someone to share it with. But, it's important to be mindful of memory and what we choose to conjure up in our minds. Just imagine, if we did have the ability to remember every single detail and every emotion, it may not look so rose-tinted after all. Some memories we keep, some our brains choose to diminish. It's good to cherish certain memories. Looking to relationships, there's nothing wrong with looking back with fondness and the great times. Yet, there's also a lot to be said from moving on from memories if they're not serving us, and only holding onto those that do. We can't let memories define who we are. Memories are a powerful thing, they shape your journey in life, give you strength but you should never let them prevent you from growing as a person. Sometimes you have to let go of certain memories to make room for new ones.

Words by Mine Sherefali