Cracking the memory code

The brain is a bit of a mystery, really. Although a great deal of research has been carried out, there are still many things that we don’t yet understand about how the brain works, how memories are formed, and how they are recalled. But there are many things that we do know: principles and effects that we can harness to make our memory more powerful and long-lasting. That’s what I am going to be talking about in a whole series of blog posts, and today I’m giving you some background info.

That blob of grey stuff inside your cranium is home to billions of brain cells, called neurons. Each neuron can connect to up to 10,000 other neurons, so there is a staggeringly huge number of potential connections that our brain cells can make with each other.

Your brain, although only accounting for about 2% of the body’s mass, consumes 20% of the oxygen you take in and 25% of the glucose that’s coursing through your bloodstream. It is a massive organic supercomputer and, amazingly, it’s re-wiring itself all the time.

Your brain is re-wiring itself right now!

At this moment, as you’re reading this paragraph, neurons are connecting to new neurons, disconnecting from others, and reinforcing their connections to some: your brain cells are dividing themselves rather like a mythical snake or serpent adding extra heads so they can add new pathways, and connect more, as you take in new information. This creates an intricate web of the finest organic wiring, crackling with electricity and reorganising itself every moment.

We know that when our brains store a memory, it’s not like just hitting ‘record’ on your hard drive recorder, ready to be replayed later. When we store information, it’s sliced into tiny pieces and effectively splattered all over your mind: data from your eyes, your ears, your nose and your skin are stored in different areas of your brain, and from a neuron’s point of view these places are millions of miles away from each other.

Colour is stored in one place, vertical lines somewhere else, diagonal lines somewhere else, details of movement yet somewhere else. And we don’t really know how the brain keeps track of all these different components of a memory. But certainly we have vastly different areas of the brain cooperating with each other to create even a simple memory.

Your brain tries to drink from a fire hose!

Your brain is being assailed by massive amounts of information coming from your senses: data coming from your eyes already take about half your brain’s processing power to deal with, and there are millions of pieces of information coming from your senses of taste and smell and touch and hearing, during every moment, not to mention the thoughts that you are creating yourself.

There is no way that your mind could possibly cope with the enormity of the information deluge that’s continually flooding towards it from your senses, so there is a system in place that takes most of what you could potentially be aware of and deletes it wholescale, and what’s left is quickly categorised, being distorted and generalised to fit the way that you understand the world, and compared to what you already know.

Your brain as a pattern-matching machine

Your brain spends it’s time acting like a super-fast pattern-matching machine, continually asking itself, “what’s this like… what’s this like?”, referring to its memories to look for similarities or differences and trying to understand how to respond in the present and what to expect in the future.

And in creating your memories, your brain has to decide what information to retain and what to discard: what is important and what is irrelevant? Out of the millions of pieces of information that we could potentially be aware of each second, what should we retain?

We evolved to give priority to and store memories that match our priorities as hunter-gatherers, so our brains pay a lot of attention to questions like these:

  • Can I eat it?
  • Will it eat me?
  • Can I mate with it?
  • Will it mate with me?
  • Have I seen it before?

We have survived as a species because of our evolved ability to pay a lot of attention to and remember thoroughly the details of any threats, and food and reproductive potential are also very high on our list of priorities!

But we don’t live as endurance hunters and gatherers now, on the move, on the edge of starvation, facing many threats to our existence:  we have to remember telephone numbers or PIN codes or a list of the cranial nerves or legal precedents; we need to know formulae or the dates of and contributing factors that led to different historical events.

We did not evolve to do such things well or easily.

But what we can do is to understand how the human brain likes to remember things, so we can take information about cranial nerves and legal precedents or the functions of the liver and the exports of Belgium, and turn that information into the sort of thing that our hunter-gatherer brain will pay attention to and remember.

And that’s what I’m going to do in my next blogs.



Photo credit: Ruben Molina




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