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The relationship between the brain and memory has been a subject of research for several years (Karpicke & Roediger, 2007). Despite all the efforts and energy directed to this field, memory science remains one of the areas that have not been well explained. This paper analyses some of the available knowledge to show that memories are not perfect. The paper discusses the process of memory formation and maintenance in the brain.
Working Memory and Long-Term Memory
Working memory keeps information for a brief period; normally a few seconds (Rose, Myerson, Roedige & Hale, 2010). Working memory enables people to pay attention to certain tasks at a given time. An example of a task that makes use of working memory is solving a mathematical problem without writing. As one continues to solve the problem, initial answers are stored in the working memory. This kind of memory comprises subsystems that keep and process information presented in the form of images, sounds, or both (Rose, et al., 2010).
The first similarity between working memory and long term memory is that in both cases, tasks retrieve information from secondary memory, although sometimes working memory tasks retrieve information from the primary memory. In this case, it has been claimed that working memory is an activated part of the long term memory that occasionally solicits information from the short term memory (Rose, et al., 2010).
Another similarity between working memory and long term memory is that in both cases, delayed recognition of processing tasks is enhanced by immediate recall testing. For example, in long term memory, a person who is tested to remember a task immediately after performing it is likely to remember the task in the future. Similarly, in the working memory, testing if one remembers the completed parts of a processing task improves the chances of remembering such parts in later stages of the task (Rose, et al., 2010).
There are differences between working memory and long term memory. The first difference is that working memory holds information for a brief period while long term memory holds information for a long period (Kane, Hambrick, Tuholski, Wilhelm, Payne & Engle, 2004). In this case, working memory only holds information that is currently under the focus of attention. Sometimes working memory retrieves information from long term memory to perform certain tasks. After completion of such tasks, the information is released back to the long term memory (Kane et al., 2004).
Another difference between the two types of memories is that long term memory is affected by the level of processing while working memory is not. In this case, in long term memory, simple processing tasks lead to better remembrance than complex processing tasks (Kane et al., 2004).
Memory Formation in the Brain
The initial stage of memory formation is called encoding. This is the stage at which information is first registered through sensory organs such as eyes and ears (Kane et al., 2004). The collected information is taken to the hippocampus of the brain. The hippocampus, together with the frontal cortex, has the responsibility to decide the kind of information to be kept and the kind to be discarded. Information that is worth keeping is sent to long term memory (Kane et al., 2004).
After registering external information, encoding and storage are done through electrical and chemical languages (Kane et al., 2004). This is a process in which nerve cells are connected to other cells through synaptic points. A synapse allows electrical pulses that carry information to cross spaces between cells. The firing of pulses across spaces between cells leads to the production of neurotransmitters. In this case, the neurotransmitters cross intercellular gaps and implant themselves on the walls of other cells in the neighborhood. These links are called synapses and they connect brain cells. One cell can form up-to several thousands of synapses. The neighboring cells have structures known as dendrites that collect information from synapses (Kane et al., 2004).
Through synaptic connections, brain cells work together to accomplish certain tasks (Kane et al., 2004). In this case, when more signals are shared between two brain cells, the link between the involved cells becomes powerful. The process can be likened to a relationship between two people. Sharing things improve a relationship. In the brain, when a person learns new things, more synapses are built between cells as information is passed from one cell to another. This changes the structure of the brain cells. The ability of brain cells to change structure due to new experiences is called plasticity. As more information is accessed, more alterations take place at the synapses and dendrites, causing more connections in the brain. The reorganization of brain cells as new information is received from outside is what creates knowledge and memory (Kane et al., 2004).
The alterations in the structure of brain cells are enhanced by practicing the new experience. Learning and practicing new experiences leads to the formation of highly complex circuits of memory. In this case, the idea is that as cells repeatedly fire in a particular order, it becomes easier to fire in that order in the future. When one stops practicing, firing stops and it becomes difficult to fire in the same order in the future (Kane et al., 2004). This is why it is easier to sing a song that one sings daily.
These findings imply that memories are not perfect. The stored information can fade away if not used regularly. However, memories can be improved through continued practice. People suffering from memory problems can improve their conditions by regularly learning and practicing new experiences. Learning and practicing new experiences increases connections between brain cells, leading to an increase in knowledge and memory (Kane et al., 2004).
Memories are meant to preserve information that may be needed in the future (Rose, et al., 2010). In this regard, it is adaptive for one to remember information that bears significance in his or her future. For example, a man who has been beaten by a mob for befriending another man’s wife is likely to remember the episode every time somebody’s wife smiles at him. This is adaptive remembrance because it helps the person to avoid getting into trouble again. On the other hand, it is adaptive to forget information that has no relevance in the future. It has been revealed that forgetting helps to remember important information (Rose, et al., 2010).
Role of Age and Environment in Memory Formation
Memory reduces as one gets older. This is believed to be caused by a reduction in the rate of protein synthesis. However, the exact connection between age and memory loss is still a subject of extensive research.
The environment can affect memory formation in two ways. Changes in Synaptic and dendrite structures that are responsible for memory formation are caused by the registration of external information. In this case, an environment that contains exciting information that can be learned improves memory formation. On the other hand, an environment that lacks exciting information compromises memory formation (Patel, 2012). Also, an environment that regularly brings a person into contact with certain information helps to maintain the memory of that information.
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Kane, M., Hambrick D., Tuholski S., Wilhelm O., Payne T., Engle R. (2004).The generality of working memory capacity: A latent-variable approach to verbal and visuospatial memory span and reasoning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 133,189–217
Karpicke, J. D., Roediger H. L., (2007). Expanding retrieval promotes short-term retention, but equally spaced retrieval enhances long-term retention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 33:704–719.
Patel, T. R. (2012). Environmental enrichment: Aging and memory. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 85(4): 491–500.
Rose, N. S., Myerson J., Roedige H. L., & Hale S. (2010). Similarities and differences between working memory and long-term memory: Evidence from the levels-of-processing span task. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 36(2): 471–483.