Day by day, we receive information. We process it, store it, and recall it as memories. What kind of role does our brain play in this?
Let's Imagine You're Walking Down The Street.....
And you see a stall vendor selling fruits by the side of the pavement, on the sidewalk.
You approach the vendor, and buy a small bag of fruits to bring home for the day. You thank the vendor, an old man of 65 years of age.
You continue along the sidewalk, take a left 3 blocks away, and turn into a pathway that cuts across a public park.
At the end of the pathway, you cross a street junction that always has that one faulty traffic light.
At the other side of the street, you walk along the next 5 houses and finally, approach your destination.
The doorstep to your house.
Unbeknownst or oblivious to you, you have took the exact same path, every single day when returning from work.
You've always bought a small bag of fruits. You've always thanked that old man. You've always took that same path, across the park, across that street with a faulty traffic light, across those 5 houses, and finally to your doorstep.
So, what enables us to do that? What exactly is it in us, or to be more precise, what exactly does our body have to do with enabling us to memorize and perform that same exact movement, every single day of our lives?
This is just a general example of one of the wonders that our brain can process and achieve. In fact, there is so much more than meets the eye to this little 3-pound brain of ours.
This article explores the marvels of the human brain and its astonishing association with memory. Meet our heroes for the day: The Almond, the Seahorse, and the Little Brain.
The Human Brain and Memory
The human brain is an exceptionally remarkable organ that plays an indispensable role in controlling all of the functions in our body and interpreting information from the outside world.
The brain is simply everything there is that makes up you. It is the quintessence of every faculty of the mind; consciousness, imagination, perception, creativity, thinking, judgement, language, emotion, intelligence and most importantly, memory.
Day-to-day, we are constantly exposed to an everlasting influx of information in the form of stimuli/a stimulus. Our brain receives these stimuli through the 5 senses of the body as we all know: Sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. Upon receiving the stimulus, the brain interprets and assembles them into understandable messages. Then, the message/information is stored in the brain as a memory.
The human brain is the quintessence of every thinking faculty of the mind.
But, what exactly is memory?
Memory is an informational processing system that involves an intricate and complex process. This process includes the encoding, storing and recalling of information. In memory, information is retained over time to serve a purpose in influencing future action. If you were unable to retain information, you simply would not be able to develop an identity, form any sort of relationship, or speak any language. (This is how essential memory is to us as humans!)
Memory is an informational processing system that involves the encoding, storing and recalling of information for any sort of future use.
Types of Memory and Basic Terminology
Its good to know the terminologies for some of the basic terms in memory. You might run into some of them along the way. If you can memorize them (winks), more points to you! :D
1. Implicit Memory
When we unconsciously retain information. These memories can affect our thoughts and behavior, even if we did not know about it in the first place.
1A. Procedural Memory
It is when we recall information of how to do things, such as playing a musical instrument or driving a car. This is considered to be under the category of implicit memory.
2. Explicit Memory
When we consciously retain information. This means that we are intentionally trying to remember information.
2A. Declarative Memory
It is the recall of factual information, such as trying to intentionally memorize a phone number, or basic terminologies in memory :D.
2A(1). Semantic Memory
It is the recall of general facts, such as the number of continents on Earth. It is a type of declarative memory.
2A(2). Episodic Memory
It is the recall of personal facts, such as the gift that you got on your 12th birthday. It is also a type of declarative memory.
The process of turning short-term memories into long-term, permanent memories.
The strength with which a memory is consolidated (Short-term into long-term memories).
Got your facts straight? Now, its time to learn about the parts of our brain that allows us to form memories.
The Almond: The Amygdala
The amygdala, or almond in Greek, is an almond-shaped (of course it is) cluster of nuclei located within the brain. It plays an important role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional responses (especially aggression, fear and anxiety). It has a function in many aspects of the brain's ability to do what it can do, but since we're focusing on the brain's association with memory, only concepts and factual information related to memory will be discussed. (This goes the same for the rest of the article as well!)
An Almond? Can I Eat It?
I'm afraid this isn't the crunchy, palatable drupe that you've been thinking of. You can't eat our brain's almond, but you can certainly rely on it to do some pretty funky stuff. All kidding aside....
Let's take a look at this statement:
Memory storage is influenced by stress hormones.
Stress hormones are like power-ups to the human body; they essentially set the human body to survival mode and gives it a big boost. Stress hormones (aka cortisol) are released into the bloodstream from the adrenal glands when a threat is recognized by the amygdala. The 'threat' is detected in the form of stress; and the stress comes in the form of stressors.
We have now established that the amygdala is able to detect and analyze potential 'threats' from the environment. As such, it plays a part in how memories are stored. To be more specific, the amygdala is involved in memory consolidation and how it will be modulated.
To go a step further, what the amygdala does is that it enhances the consolidation of emotional memories. An emotional memory is an emotionally-charged event that has happened in the past (such as having a traumatic accident). Thus, in other words, the greater the emotional stimulus from an event, the greater that memory is encoded and retained.
To give an example:
You've just had an accident that has deeply affected you. Because of the overwhelming emotional stimulus (from the accident), your amygdala retains this event at a deeper level in your memories. Even 15 years later, you can still clearly recall the details of that accident on that particular day.
The amygdala 'memorizes' memories at a deeper level when the said event is more emotionally arousing.
The Seahorse: The Hippocampus
There are 46 species of small marine fish in the genus Hippocampus. Also known as 'seahorse', these cute creatures can be found in shallow tropical climates and---oh shoot, am I in the wrong documentary? Quick quick, switch it back!
If you thought I was talking about those cute seahorses, sorry but this is the wrong article :P. The hippocampus in our brain isn't cute, but it certainly is one of the most important parts of our brain. What does it do?
The hippocampus plays an essential role in the mechanism of declarative memory and the consolidation of memories (Turning short-term memories into long-term, more permanent memories). It is important to note that it plays a critical role in declarative memory, not implicit memory.
Case Study: The Intriguing Tale of H.M.
To further prove it is the story of a patient known as H.M. He had a surgery in 1953 to cure his epilepsy and part of the surgery was to remove his hippocampus. As a result, he had lost the ability to form new declarative memories. But, he could still remember things that had occurred prior to the surgery!
What does this signify? It means that the hippocampus does not play an important role in the retention of memory after it has already been consolidated.
The hippocampus is integral in consolidating memories and processing declarative memories.
The Little Brain: The Cerebellum
The cerebellum, or Latin for 'little brain', is also an extremely important part of our brain that is associated with memory. What is its role in memory?
So far, our amygdala enables us to remember emotionally charged events more, and our hippocampus enables us to create new memories and memorize facts. What's left?
What the hippocampus cannot do, the cerebellum can. The hippocampus allows us to memorize general facts (words, numbers, factual information). But what about our actual movements, actions and hand skills? This is what the cerebellum specializes in; motor learning.
The cerebellum plays a role in the learning of procedural memory and motor learning. Playing a musical instrument, learning a sport, driving a car, learning to type on a keyboard without looking and riding a bike are all examples of motor skills that require procedural memory.
Think about it; without the cerebellum, you would be able to recall your birthday and your phone number, but you wouldn't know how to walk properly, drive a car, play your favorite musical instrument and so much more!
The cerebellum is essential in processing procedural memories.
Show Some Love!
Our 3 heroes are always working full-time to keep our minds updated and fresh. We're always developing and learning more about the world; and that's all thanks to them!
So, the next time you find yourself being able to recall your phone number without skipping a beat, thank your cute seahorse.
The next time you drive your car, thank your little brain.
The next time you find yourself remembering a horrible accident, albeit unfortunate, know that its a survival trait, and your little almond's just looking out for you!