How We Recall a Memory

How We Recall a Memory
Memory recall or retrieval—better known as remembering—is simply re-accessing previous events or information stored in the brain. Except, in actuality, it’s really not “simple” at all. The brain is super complex—it just has a funny way of making things seem easy!

AN UN-ORGANIZED BRAIN IS A GENIUS BRAIN

During the act of remembering, the brain goes into rewind and replay mode, stimulating a pattern of activities and responses associated with the initial event or experience. These neural actions echo the brain’s perception of what took place, meaning that memory recall and simple thought oftentimes overlap: when we think of a past happening, we are also remembering. For this reason, memory recall is mainly the spontaneous reconstruction of elements scattered throughout the brain: thoughts. You see, our memories aren’t exactly stored in an organized format—there are no perfectly mapped ABCs and year-to-year timelines. Rather, memories and thoughts are stowed away like mismatched clothing items tossed about in an overwhelmingly full closet, or pieces of a jigsaw puzzle dumped out in the middle of the floor. In this way, retrieving memories requires re-visiting nerve pathways that were first formed when the memory was encoded into the brain. When we think about certain events frequently—therefore following those nerve passages repeatedly—the pathways are strengthened.

SOMETIMES OUR BRAINS MORPH WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED...

What’s interesting is how our memories shift overtime. We might remember wearing a red dress to prom, while all our friends clearly remember the color purple. We might recall Mom starting the fight at Christmas, when the rest of the family is certain it was you. We might think last year’s vacation took place in June in North Carolina, when hubby and kiddos insist it was July in South Carolina. Sometimes our imagination takes over and a blurred, gray line forms of what actually occurred versus what we think happened. This isn’t our attempt to manipulate or intentionally lie; it’s just the way our brains work sometimes.

FROM LONG-TERM TO SHORT-TERM STORAGE, STRENGTHENING NEURAL PATHWAYS

All in all, our ability to remember is based on the brain’s way of effectively bringing a memory from long-term storage to short-term storage. So, for example, when we are searching for a particular vocab word perched on the tip of our tongue and just can’t remember it—UGH—the attempt to remember summons the word from long-term storage—you know, from that spelling bee in eighth grade when you last used the word—to now. In this short-term, or “working memory”, the idea is revealed like a mirror, before being returned to long-term memory. The neat thing is that every time we use that dang word from now on, the pathway is strengthened; we don’t have to think so hard about that particular dictionary term. Most of what we are able to remember comes from direct retrieval, in which information stored in our brains is linked directly to a specific question or cue. (i.e. Who was your first boyfriend? Where were you born? How old were you when you learned to ride a bicycle? Etc.) Other memories can be retrieved through hierarchical implication, in which a specific question is linked to a subset of related information, which we process to find our inferred answer. (i.e. being asked about prom might force you to remember a funny dance that you did with your best friend; or being asked about your first kiss might force you to remember the bowling alley where it took place, Etc.)

TWO MAIN METHODS: RECOGNITION AND RECALL

The two primary methods used to access memory are defined as recognition and recall. Recognition is the connection of an event or physical object that was previously confronted or experienced. This involves a comparison of information with memory. For example, when you recognize someone’s face or when you see a T/ F or multiple-choice answers on a test. Recognition can be fairly unconscious—especially when it comes to identifying faces. (The brain has an area that is dedicated completely to face-recognition, which passes information through limbic areas to generate familiarity before linking with data about the person!) On the other hand, recall involves remembering something that’s not currently, physically present. This requires an uncovering of information solely from remembrance. There’s nothing tangible to reference, nothing upfront to guide you. Examples include: trying to remember the name of a recognized person, remember the place where you first met (without being at the place), knowing the answer to an open-ended history or science-related question, Etc. Because this can be a more complex way of retrieving memories, more people fail at recall more than they do recognition. 

THE HIPPOCAMPUS

Those lucky ones who do easily remember based on recall are assumed to have an efficient hippocampus. The degree to which someone can vividly remember a life event or happening is directly related to the level of the individual’s hippocampal activity. And once a memory is retrieved, studies show that we are eventually able to re-immerse ourselves in the experience: we can hear the music that played, remember who we talked to and what conversations we had, how we felt during and after the event, etc. It’s almost like reliving the episode completely! The craziest part? All of these memories—the music, the conversations, the emotions involved—are stored in separately in diverse areas of the brain! Our minds have an astounding process of linking these varied pieces together, retrieving the entire event as a cumulative whole. How? You guessed it: the hippocampus.

THE MAGIC OF MEMORY RECALL

Of course, not all of us have exceptional hippocampi—(an interesting plural. Reminds me of hippopotamuses). We oftentimes rely on a touchable, in-our-face object, person or place to help us remember. For this reason, practicing memory recall can be very helpful. Re-watching family videos, flipping through old photographs and listening to decade-old recordings can light a spark of memories, which ignite a spiral of countless others. These memories link to other memories, growing and expanding, until there are literally thousands of vibrant moments, experiences and ideas at our the tip of our tongues—or, more accurately, at the tip of our brains! While the act of remembering might seem simple on the outside, it’s really a very complicated and astonishing thing. And it’s also a very necessary thing. Memory is part of our survival. It’s how we thrive in relationships, at work. It’s how we reflect on who we are and how we’ve evolved individually. Pretty neat, huh? Aren’t you in awe of your mind?
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