As the saying goes – ‘Memories maketh the man’. Memories make us who we are, make us human and are a fascinating function of the human body.
As part of our latest #It'sBodyAmazing campaign, I've been explaining the science behind how our experiences translate into memories that we can recall years, and even decades, later.
What are your earliest memories - your happy and sad memories?
Just exactly how are these memories made? Why do we remember some and not others? How can we improve our memory and how can we use memories to make us happier? In this blog, I'll explain:
How are memories made?
In simple terms, it comes down to electrical pathways and chemicals!
Nerve cells called neurons connect with each other in the brain using electricity and chemicals called neurotransmitters. Your brain has about one billion neurons which all connect with each other many times, resulting in over one trillion connections. Memories are formed when these connections between nerve cells are strengthened in a process called Long Term Potentiation.
How are memories stored?
There are two main types of memory – short term and long term. Short term memory is small and lasts for seconds whereas long term memory is limitless. This explains why you can remember the cake at your 7th birthday party but not the name of the person you have just met!
Your short-term memory can hold between and 4 and 9 items for around 30 seconds, this has been likened to writing your name in the air with a sparkler. There are some tricks to improve short- term memory, say for example you are trying to remember a phone number, repeating the number over and over and breaking the number down into smaller chunks can help you retain the information for longer.
Some memories make it through to long term storage, new memories are created in the area of the brain called the hippocampus and over time they are moved to the outer part of the brain called the cortex where they become long term memories.
What’s your earliest memory?
Scientists have shown that memories can form in the womb from as early as 20 weeks’ gestation! Babies will remember music that was played to them in the womb!
How do we retrieve or access our memories? Why do we remember some memories not others?
Our long-term memory has limitless capacity and can store memories indefinitely but if we were able to recall every single memory can you imagine how overwhelming that would be?
We are more likely to remember something if we understand and pay attention to it, do it repeatedly or it is linked to an emotion. Memories are strongly linked to emotions, so you are more likely to store a memory if you are experiencing a strong emotion, such as fear, happiness, sadness.
Did you know it is thought to take around 200 milliseconds to access a long-term memory?
We access our memories with the help of association and retrieval cues – which are any trigger or stimulus that helps us recall these stored memories. Association explains why if you have ever entered a room and forgot what you went for, but then return to the place where you first had the thought - the memory will come back to you!
Smells commonly trigger memories, often more so than any of our other senses - perfume reminding you of special times or people, the scent of pine reminding you of happy Christmas memories. This is thought to be because in the brain the hippocampus (the area that creates new memories) has direct connections to the olfactory bulb that is involved in our sense of smell.
As our memories are stored forever, if we have forgotten something that doesn’t mean the memory isn’t there any more, simply that we don’t have the right cue to help us retrieve it! Not forgotten, just a failure of retrieval!
How can we improve our memory?
The memory is like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise. The brain has a wonderful ability to form new neural connections and to change and grow called neuro plasticity.
Top tips to improve your memory
To encode memories and move them to long term storage we have to strengthen the neural connections and this is helped by trying to remember things.
The harder we have to work to retrieve a memory the more likely we are to learn, that’s why testing students works for learning! Cramming before an exam will simply leave things in the short- term memory.
Associate facts with meanings or visualisation – try the technique of mentally visualising different facts in different rooms of your house and then when you need to remember visualise yourself walking through the house to retrieve them.
Getting a good night’s sleep is vital to help consolidate memories and is one of the most important elements in improving memory storage and retrieval. Even a quick nap can help your memory!
Stress is well known to affect our short-term memory and ability to make long term memories. Try Mindfulness and breathing exercises which have been shown to help with lowering stress levels and improving memory
Regular physical activity improves both concentration and may reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease by up to 30%!
Taking a walk, particularly if outside in nature, has also been shown to positively impact on cognitive focus and memory. If you are trying to learn new information, taking time out from studying every 20 minutes or so to go for a walk allows the brain to assimilate what you have learnt.
Did you know we are more likely to remember the information that is provided if it is in a weird, difficult-to-read font?
Eat a diet rich in brain food
Eat a healthy diet avoiding processed foods. Some studies show eating blueberries regularly can improve memory!
Challenge your brain
Never stop learning, take up a new hobby, turn off the sat nav, read a book!
How can memories make us happier? Remember the good times!
If you remember a happy memory then your brain actually produces the chemical dopamine that makes us feel happy. Research shows that recalling and appreciating positive memories can have positive effects on our sense of wellbeing and how we feel about ourselves and others – reminiscing is good for you!
Make more happy memories by being mindful of the present moment and recognising and taking note when you are experiencing something positive. Writing it down in a gratitude diary or app is even better and helps to consolidate that memory as a happy one.
Some psychologists think that taking pictures of everything on our smart phones means that we rely on our phones to be our memories and therefore don’t make our own. Practice making memories and not relying on smart phones – store the pictures in your mind!
Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues have proposed the ‘peak – end’ rule to help explain some memories. There is too much information to recall about a whole event to decide whether this was a happy memory or not so we tend to remember the ‘peak’ or best part and how it ended.
If you want to create a happy memory, make sure there is a ‘peak’ or a fantastic highlight and the event ends on a positive note.