Why do you still remember the jingle from an insurance commercial from 1998?
But you suddenly forgot the name of your child’s 5th grade teacher who’s had them since kindergarten? 🤦
Memory is a strange thing. And the overwhelming complexity of our brains isn’t much help in figuring it all out.
What we do know is that our brain is a network of synapses—an impossibly huge network that puts double-football-field-length Google data centers to shame. But what do memories look like in that network? Where do they go? Do they ever really leave? Or do they just get lost?
What is a memory?
If we’re looking at a memory like information (which it is), then a memory is information that has been (1) encoded, (2) stored, and (3) retrieved by your brain.
Let’s look at the first thing that happens in the lifespan of a memory—
Encoding—How your memories are saved.
When you experience something new or learn information, your brain encodes this information by forming new connections between neurons.
Depending on the situation—if it was a stressful, confusing, or traumatic experience—your brain may encode the information incorrectly. It will be encoded according to the “reality” of your experience, not to what actually happened.
For example, certain witnesses of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York City offer conflicting memories of the events of the day. Some claim to have seen things (like a plane hitting the tower or one of the towers falling) when geographically and chronologically it would not have made sense for them to have witnessed that specific event. But they believe they saw them.
It is very important to our brains that things make sense as they are encoded, or else it becomes complicated to store and retrieve said memories. So, in an effort to make sense of some situations, our brain will twist reality to make it fit into its understanding of reality.
Because we mostly aren’t walking around in a trauma-inducing situation or in a state of deep confusion, most of our memories are encoded fairly accurately.
After the information is encoded, the brain stores it for later.
Storage—Where your brain puts all your memories.
Memories are not stored in a single location inside your brain. Rather, they’re spread out across a number of regions in the brain involving a network of neurons (nerve cells) and synapses (connections between the neurons).
Why not just store all the memories in one place?
Because your brain is organized spatially according to different functions. A single memory may have involved various parts of the brain. For example, pleasure, fear, survival, desire, rewards, sensory input from your 5 senses, etc, all of which have a different physical location in your brain.
So, basically, each memory is like a constellation in your mind—a unique web of neural connections that paints a picture of something that happened in your life.
Retrieval—How you recall memories.
After initial encoding, memories can undergo consolidation, where they become more stable and resistant to interference. This can involve the transfer of memories over time from the hippocampus to the cortex.
When you recall a memory, your brain reactivates the neural pathways that were originally formed during encoding. This involves the release of neurotransmitters and the reactivation of specific neuronal networks associated with the memory.
Why do you forget things?
Over time, memories may become harder to retrieve. This is partially due to interference from new information and the decay of synaptic connections associated with the memory, which can weaken its accessibility and vividness.
As memories age, the brain’s ability to retrieve them can weaken.
What can help you remember things better?
Luckily, there’s hope for your brain. Your brain is an organ in your body, and as such, grows and develops just like other parts of the body. The nervous system, of which your brain is a part, depends on nutrition to function properly just like every other system.
Here are a few things that will help your brain perform optimally and for longer:
Adequate sleep allows the brain to strengthen and organize newly formed memories, particularly in the deep stages of sleep like slow-wave and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
Proper nutrition, including a balanced diet rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and essential vitamins and minerals, provides the brain with the necessary building blocks and energy to support cognitive function and memory.
Some supplements, like certain vitamins (e.g., vitamin B12) and nootropics (e.g., ginkgo biloba), have been studied for their potential to support memory and cognitive function. Our recommendation for mind care supplements includes Memory 2000 and Super Ginkgo Biloba from Natural Balance.
- Our brains encode, store, and retrieve memories.
- Encoding involves making new connections, even if sometimes our brain bends the truth to fit the story.
- Memories are scattered across different brain areas.
- To recall a memory, your brain reactivates its pathways with the help of neurotransmitters.
- As time goes on, memories can fade due to interference and failing connections.
- Getting enough sleep and eating well help your memory.
- Some supplements, like vitamin B12 and ginkgo biloba, might help, but it’s always smart to chat with a pro first.