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How We Create a Memory

By Christian Roemer

If you’ve ever wondered how we form memories, the truth is, nobody really knows! Every day, we recall information from our past, but nobody’s exactly sure how it happens. Scientists have studied what makes memory work, and the resulting information is interesting, confusing, and sometimes totally mind blowing. Since the science of memory isn’t completely settled, we figured we’d give you a primer on some of the competing hypotheses that scientists have proposed over the years. These are three main theories about how memories are formed and recalled:



This theory says that our brains basically work like a super sophisticated computer. We experience things, then our brain turns that information into specific codes that are stored in our brains. When we need to remember something, our brain goes back and reads those special codes to recall the information.



This is the theory that mostly everyone has heard of. Specifically, the Storage and Transfer Model says that there are three types of memory, and they can be moved around from place to place. There’s a sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. Depending on how important a certain experience is, it’ll go from one store of memory to the other.



This theory says that there’s really only one kind of memory, and that your brain decides to store the important stuff. Unimportant things like the feeling of your fingers on a keyboard are quickly forgotten, while things that you concentrate on are stashed away. So you might not notice the exact feeling in your fingertips while they strike each specific key, but you’ll recall the subject of the e-mail that you sent -- because you had to concentrate on it harder. So that’s a basic explanation about how memories are formed. But what about how they’re recalled? Well, we wish we had a better answer, but nobody’s quite sure about that either. Some people think that memories are like pieces of data in a computer that you can pull up and read at any time. Some people think that memories are actually edited as you remember them (that’s why your lime green bell bottoms from the 70s get wider every time you talk about them). If you want your mind to be blown, some people say that when you remember something, you’re not actually remembering the original event at all; you’re only remembering the last time you remembered something. If you really want to get into the weeds, some people say that memories are changeable, and aren’t reliable at all. After all, there’s a huge population of people who remember watching a Sinbad movie in the early 1990s that never really existed. Even though we don’t know exactly how memories work and function, we do know that they play a huge role in how we live our lives. They make us who we are, even if who we are involved a fanny pack and unhealthy obsession with n’Sync in middle school. They help inform all of our future decisions, and they can even affect how we feel at any given moment. We think that memories are made best when you’re around the people that you love. That way, even if you’re only remembering the last time you were remembering them, you’re still participating in a happy and fulfilling process that makes humans unique in the world.
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