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How Memory REALLY Works
by Dr Jill Ammon-Wexler, Personal Excellence Mentor and Pioneer Brainwave Researcher
Memory is the ability to retain and to recall personal experiences, information, and various skills and habits. But although memory is easy to define -- there's little agreement among researchers about how memory really works. Harvard psychology professor Dr. Daniel Schacter believes that the process of remembering involves three important aspects:
- Memories are mental constructs that are created to fit the present needs, desires, and influences of the individual,
- Memories are often accompanied by intense emotions and feelings, and
- The act of remembering something usually involves a conscious awareness of the memory.
The Part Played by Emotions - Many researchers have observed that the more traumatic or emotion-packed an experience, the more likely you'll remember it. Your memories are encoded into actual physical neural connections in several parts of your brain. The more powerful the images accompanying an event -- the more your brain is stimulated, and more likely it will become one of your long-term memories.
As recent as 1996, a survey revealed that 84 percent of psychotherapists and psychologists were convinced that all of the details of every experience a person undergoes throughout his or her life is permanently stored in the mind.
However, many current studies suggest that this is only partially true. Recent memory research indicates that every bit of sensory data experienced by an individual throughout the course of their normal day to day life is NOT retained by the brain, or is not able to be recalled.
The evidence is that memories are stored as fragments of an experience, and that these are actually encoded within your brain's neural network.
The process of memory then involves a conscious act of 'uploading' a significant or emotional event -- and the event is then recalled as an episodic montage or collage of images, rather than as a complete and accurate recall of your actual past sensory data.
Why Some Memories are More Permanent - Long-term memory requires an extensive encoding by your hypothalamus and subsequent storage in your brain's temporal lobes. Most potential memories are lost in less than a minute because they were never successfully encoded. We simply tend to remember things that are important to us, or are packed with emotional content.
Lasting encoding depends on your individual interests, perception, and needs. Thinking and talking about an experience at the time it occurred also seems to assist in more easily recalled memories.
Can Memories be Changed? - it's a mistake to believe that once your brain has recorded a memory, it remains forever fixed.
According to research conducted at New York University by Drs. Karim Nader and Glenn Shafe, every time a memory is consciously recalled -- your brain reassembles it, updates it, and makes new proteins before placing the memory back in long term storage. This changes and strengthens the neural network the memory is stored on.
This provides a neurobiological explanation of how your memories may be updated, or even recreated.
'False Memories' - Some studies show we often create a memory after the fact -- and are susceptible to suggestions from others as to the 'truth' of what actually occurred.
This can create false memories which we believe happened to us -- when actually the 'remembered' events never occurred.
The ease with which false memories can occur was demonstrated in a 2001 study by University of Washington memory researchers Jacquie E. Pickrell and Dr. Elizabeth F. Loftus. About one-third of the 120 subjects in a study who were exposed to a fake advertisement showing Bugs Bunny at Disneyland later said they 'remembered' meeting Bugs when they visited Disneyland, and had even shaken his hand.
This could never have occurred -- because the cartoon character Bugs Bunny is owned by Warner Brothers, and would therefore never be seen at Disneyland walking around with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
This study suggests we might also create many 'false' autobiographical memories based on nostalgic advertising, films, and TV.
A 1998 report by the British Royal College of Psychiatrists accused its own members of having damaged patients' lives by implanting false memories as they delved into their childhood events. According to the report, nearly 1,000 parents claimed they had been falsely accused of sexual abuse after their adult children allegedly recovered such memories during suggestive psychotherapy.
'Source Amnesia' - The mind can play some funny tricks. Closely related to false memories is'source amnesia,'in which we accurately recall an event -- but forget the source of the memory.
We may recall the details of a terrible storm our grandmother told us of as a young child, then later actually recall the story as one of own memories -- as if it had actually happened to us.
And today's children -- seeing realistic dramatic portrayals of hardships or disasters in theaters or on their television screens -- may later remember these images as their own memories of enduring difficult times or violent acts.
The Exciting Conclusion - From all this we can conclude several things: First, memories may not >be reliable depictions of what happened, and second -- if we recall them and place new emotional material on them -- we can actually change the memory in our brain's neural networks. Now that's interesting and empowering!
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