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On memories and different truths

Updated on March 13, 2015

What is memory?

In the words of the neuroscientist Michel Gazzaniga, "Everything in life is memory, save for the thin edge of the present". So, in short terms, memory retains information that is no longer present, enabling us to connect with the past, retrieving the information according to our needs and depending on the context. As an active rather than a merely passive process, memory does not happen in a singular part of the brain. It happen brain-wide, in several areas, involving distributed acts or processes.

According to Jonathan K. Foster, the main characteristic of memory is being reconstructive. We generate a reconstruction based in our own expectations, assumptions, and previous experiences. As a result, what we remember is somehow mediated through our emotions, mental state, concerns, and interests, which are combined to the event itself.

While an event is happening, in our heads, the memory is being constructed according to what we are personally experiencing. That, in a way, might explain why different people have different recollections of the same event. Each one of us tend to remember the most relevant and useful aspects to ourselves, what makes memory selective and interpretative - and, also, very complex.

In fact, the physiological and psychological processes of memory might happen unwittingly in our brain, and sometimes we retrieve images or feelings we are not expecting to or don't want to relive. On one hand, evocation of memories can happen against our will; on the other hand, evocation can also fail even when we try hard to remember especific episodes or details.

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The logic of remembering

An efficient memory system needs to have three working components: codification; storage; and recovery. In a simplified sense, the memory first encodes or acquires the information, so it can storage it in a place and, when necessary, the information can be retrieved.

Of course, when we talk about our brain, memory is not a simple "place" for data allocation, and it can be divided in groups and subgroups according to function and means of operation. In fact, we can say we have not a unique memory system, but a few.

In the 1960s, memory subdivisions based on information processing models became popular, like the modal description by Atkinson and Shiffrin, in 1968, known as the "multi-store model of memory". According to this model, information is, at first, briefly kept in the sensory memory store, and, after selected, transferred to the short-term memory store. Only then, after another filtering process, some information will be kept in the long-term memory store.

Every day we face tons of sensory information which is constantly filtered by our sensory memory, yet it will keep a considerable amount of impressions - the most important ones - that are then passed to the short-term memory, where they will be processed or discarded. Working memory's capacity is limited, being able to hold, generally, between five and nine items or chunks of information, and when the "store" is full, older information is replaced by a new one.

The brain, after processing and categorizing information, move it to our long-term memory, where all the information is stored and structured according to how we use it, in what are called "schemas". The more we practice using a certain schema, the easier it is for the brain to retrieve the information stored in it, resulting in automation. That's why the more practiced we are in a certain ability, the better we become at it. This explains drills and constant repetition used as learning tools.

Later, attempting to describe more accurately what occurs in the short-term memory, Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch developed, in 1974, the model of working memory, composed of three main components: the "central executive", which acts as a supervisory system and controls the flow of information from and to two "slave systems", the "phonological loop" (responsible for storing verbal content) and the "visuo-spatial sketchpad" (responsible for storing visual and spatial data).

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On forgetting and the benefits of organization

Traditionally, there are two points of view about forgetting, one stating that it is merely a matter of decadence or fading of memory, and another one arguing that forgetting is an active process that occurs because pieces of memory may be broken, obscured or overlapped by other upcoming memories. In fact, there is a consensus that both process may take place, even together, being difficult to specify if something is forgotten because of time or as a result of other events' interference.

Since experiences lived by us tend to interact among each other in our mind, they can also mix one with the other and, sometimes, we even make connections among them - even if they're not linked at all, having occurred in completely different contexts. This can have a negative effect, when pieces of memories become confuse and blurred, but it is also a mechanism we can take advantage of when we need to remember specific things: every time we learn a new thing or ability, we can relate it to other old themes we've learnt much before, making it easier to retrieve information when necessary (for example, during a test).

When we make connections and relations between different elements in our memory we organize the pieces of information in ways that will make sense to us - even if they don't seem logical to other people. We generally forget aleatory information much quicker than what shows a kind of logic or themed frame. This explains why, for example, the visual structure in didactic books is considered as important as the sections' divisions. Another instance occasion is the belief, shared by many specialists, that experts in a determined subject find it easier and faster to learn new things related to that matter than the ones who aren't very familiar with the topic.

On the other hand, previous knowledge can mislead you when the outcomes of an action or happening are unexpected or extraordinary. A person's previous knowledge can influence in the sense that, when trying to remember something, one can relate to its own expectations instead of what really has happened.

The truth may vary

Memory is a central source to writings of different genres. Many narratives come from images and stories we keep in our head, and the act of putting it on paper, whether it is an individual or a collective memory, is usually an attempt to make it linear and coherent.

Every happening has an impact in our minds, some in bigger scales than others. But to different people, different details matter. Some of us will pay more attention to a specificity, some, to other. That's why accounts of the same event from different witnesses are like a variety of puzzle pieces; some of them don't even seem to have a link with the other ones, even though they are part of the same picture.

Being a witness of an event and having to relate it to other people often brings anxiety and fear of being imprecise, inaccurate. As an eyewitness in a violent occurrence, for instance, there are many factors at stake, such as our mental state, the shock factor and our sense of self-preservation. What is more, the use of leading questions, suggestive query and psychological pressure can result in false confirmation.

The phenomenon of false memory is also related to fake information and suggestions being made, leading a person to "remember" things that didn't happen at all. Supposed repressed memories can emerge through recovered memory therapy and result in serious consequences not only for the individual being "treated", but also for those who are close to him/her.

When someone suffers from False Memory Syndrome, this person's identity and relations to other people and to the world are affected by false memories of events that, in his/her mind, are very true. It is not a simple case of innacurate memories - which we all have -, but a situation in which the vulnerable individual shapes personality and life style around that memory and it can be quite destructive - think about, for example, cases of implanted memories of sexual abuse during childhood.

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Can I improve my memory?

There aren't ways to upgrade your physical memory allocation or your neurologic system, but there are proven techniques we can betake to take more advantage of our current capacity.

Specialists agree that recurrent practice, especially if it's distributed along a broader period of time, can be more effective for a learner who needs to remember something than just repeating or rehearsing it as a single block the night(s) before a test. Of course, understanding what you need to remember is crucial. Learning is, again, a good example: if you don't understand a subject, you won't learn it neither remember it later.

Motivation is another important factor: why do you need to remember this or that? Are you feeling motivated during the process of remembering? The more interesting a theme or an event is for you, the more you'll want to aprehend it in your memory.

For the last 15 years, some researches have also tried to explain how physical activity can benefit the brain, and in 1999 Henriette van Praag finally discovered that, by exercising voluntarily your body, you increase the number of neuronal cells in your hippocampus - exactly the area in which new memories are formed. Later, studies showed that these neurobiological changes caused by exercises result in an improvement of a few cognitive functions, mainly the development of visuospatial memory and learning ability (this outcome happens even with older people, who can resort to exercises to help fighting Alzheimer's effects).

Another way of improving memory is eating! Because around 60% of all glucose we consume is to feed the brain, American researcher Paul Gold decided to verify how different substances might influence memory capacity, and he observed an improvement after calorie intake. Obviously, there is a difference between calorie and pure fat, because the ingestion of excessive bad calories and fat are responsible for decreasing learning ability. That indicates how important it is to have balanced meals throughout the day, including diverse vitamines and nutrients in our diet.

Sleeping is also crucial to eliminate neurotoxins and to reposition metabolits spent while we're awake. This makes our brain ready for receiving new information. What is more, after learning something new, sleeping is what promotes the consolidation and reestructuring of those new acquired memories.

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    • FreakFran profile imageAUTHOR

      Francine Oliveira 

      3 years ago from Minas Gerais, Brasil

      Thank you for the comment!

      And, yes, politics have great examples of "selective memory"... people see what they want to see and believe in what they want to believe, and that's also true in cases of crime investigation... how many times the police leads prosecution to charge wrong suspects? It's a matter of just repeating the same story again and again, until it becomes true. We also see this on newspapers, on the internet...

    • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

      Dr Billy Kidd 

      3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Great post.

      When people testify about what they saw they create a narrative that suits them emotionally--and then put together the parts.

      Another issue is accommodation. Some people cannot easily accept something that doesn't fit into a category in their memory where they already store memories. Other people, go with the change and add a new schema to accommodate the new facts or view of the world.

      This is amazing in politics. When someone like Reagan becomes a hero, for instance, the truth about him is denied accommodation because it doesn't fit into the hero narrative/category.

      Thanks for covering the important basics of memory. Great research!

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