Since time immemorial, humans have tried to understand what memory is, how it works and why it goes wrong. It is an important part of what makes us truly human, and yet it is one of the most elusive and misunderstood of human attributes.
The popular image of memory is as a kind of tiny filing cabinet full of individual memory folders in which information is stored away, or perhaps as a neural super-computer of huge capacity and speed. However, in the light of modern biological and psychological knowledge, these metaphors may not be entirely useful and, today, experts believe that memory is in fact far more complex and subtle than that.
It seems that our memory is located not in one particular place in the brain, but is instead a brain-wide process in which several different areas of the brain act in conjunction with one another (sometimes referred to as distributed processing). For example, the simple act of riding a bike is actively and seamlessly reconstructed by the brain from many different areas: the memory of how to operate the bike comes from one area, the memory of how to get from here to the end of the block comes from another, the memory of biking safety rules from another, and that nervous feeling when a car veers dangerously close comes from still another. Each element of a memory (sights, sounds, words, emotions) is encoded in the same part of the brain that originally created that fragment (visual cortex, motor cortex, language area, etc), and recall of a memory effectively reactivates the neural patterns generated during the original encoding. Thus, a better image might be that of a complex web, in which the threads symbolize the various elements of a memory, that join at nodes or intersection points to form a whole rounded memory of a person, object or event. This kind of distributed memory ensures that even if part of the brain is damaged, some parts of an experience may still remain. Neurologists are only beginning to understand how the parts are reassembled into a coherent whole.
Neither is memory a single unitary process but there are different types of memory. Our short term and long-term memories are encoded and stored in different ways and in different parts of the brain, for reasons that we are only beginning to guess at. Years of case studies of patients suffering from accidents and brain-related diseases and other disorders have begun to indicate some of the complexities of the memory processes, and great strides have been made in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, but many of the exact mechanisms involved remain elusive.
Watch this interesting video about your memory
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