We explain what memory is, how it is classified and what its functions are. In addition, its general characteristics, phases and diseases.
What is Memory?
We call memory the brain's ability to store, encode and retrieve information acquired through experience or various learning mechanisms. It allows the living being to derive learning from what has been experienced and modify its behavior for a better adaptation to future situations, for which it is an essential part of learning.
Memory is not exclusive to the human being but rather shares this capacity with higher animals . Although there is no proven explanation for the phenomenon of memory and thought , it is believed that the former is a consequence of neural networks that are created through a repetitive synaptic connection between nerve cells.
The ability to form memories, however, seems to be spread across the lobes and partitions of the brain, across a vast network of some 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synaptic connections between them. Such a biological information storage apparatus contains, according to estimates (since there is no way to measure the capacity of the brain ), between 1 and 10 terabytes (1Tb = 1024 Mb) of information. According to Carl Sagan, this is equivalent to about ten billion pages of encyclopedia.
The study of memory
The study of memory began with ancient civilizations , whose philosophers attributed various divine properties to it. For the ancient Greeks, for example, Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory.
In the 19th century, the formal study of memory and its forms deepened, based on the contributions of William James (1890) and especially Herman Ebbinghaus (1885).
Later it was displaced from the field of interest of psychology given the predominance of the doctrine of behaviorism during the early twentieth century and regained its importance as a vital topic in the study of the mind from 1950 with the cognitive revolution.
On the other hand, the emergence of the computer as an analogy for the brain capacities of the human being meant a new look at memory.
Difference with animals
Human memory differs from that of animals in that it is less subject to the rigidity of impulses. A human child is born as a blank page and will be able to record on it all the events that happen to him in life , to define his identity from his vital memories.
At the same time, vital functions that do not require learning, such as breathing or reflexes, are in much more primitive and basic nerve supports in our body , so we should not learn to do them.
The most usual classification of the forms of memory have to do with the senses involved in the formation of memories (sensory memory), or with the evocative capacity of past events, as occurs when we smell a familiar aroma or listen to a childhood song. .
These types of sensory memory are auditory, visual, tactile, gustatory, and olfactory . Of all of them, auditory and visual (the most important senses for our species), are usually the most predominant.
There is also an operative memory , dedicated no longer to the storage of this sensory information but to its elaboration into memories, that is, to the leap in meaning between an external stimulus and a past experience.
Finally, a distinction is usually made between primary (short-term) and secondary (long-term) memory .
Characteristics of long-term memory
Long-term memory, also called inactive or secondary, is one that allows us to go back to events far away in time with which there is no direct and recent real connection, but remote and often imprecise. Its biological mechanisms are still unknown, but it is thought that it constitutes a form of short-term memory that, through repetition and retransmission patterns, is fixed in a more permanent although invisible way.
It is also known that the most emotionally significant events , that is, more painful or more pleasant, tend to be fixed with greater energy in long-term memory, being able to show themselves present in daily behavior despite the fact that the subject does not consciously evoke them. , as Sigmund Freud warned in his studies on the nature of trauma.
Characteristics of short-term memory
Short-term memory, also called active or primary memory, is what allows a limited amount of information to be held in mental attention, which is thus immediately available for use and recall for a short period of time . After this period, the memory is forgotten, disappears and is replaced by new ones.
It differs from secondary memory in that its elaborations do not usually last , and in most cases are unrecoverable later. It is estimated that it is an independent data “store”, with completely independent activation mechanisms and biochemical reflexes.
Memory operates based on three differentiated phases, during which mental attention fulfills specific roles. These phases are:
- Registration or encryption. Information from the senses is transformed into verbal, visual and sensory codes that can be handled independently. These codes can be reflected on or they can be transmitted through language . It is a complex process of abstraction.
- Storage. Retention of information, both in short-term memory (ephemeral but fast) and in long-term memory (permanent but slow and imprecise).
- Recovery. Also called recollection or recollection, it is about the location and updating of information, its evocation and return to consciousness, from which it can return to memory slightly changed.
We will distinguish two levels of memory function:
- On a physical level. Neurons in the brain connect their extensions, called dendrites, to synapse and transmit from one to another a series of signals in the form of electrical impulses and chemical substances. These electrical impulses are then translated into sensations in the cerebral cortex.
- On a psychic level. The various forms of memory are in constant interaction and evocation (conscious and unconscious) of the emotional, logical, experiential or whatever type of content that a subject needs in his daily life. This collaboration allows for the complexity of the mental processes of reasoning and deduction.
Factors that negatively influence memory
Lack of exercise, extreme mental inactivity , as well as chronic lack of sleep, thyroid (metabolic) problems, smoking , and some emotional stress situations such as depression and anxiety, are known to have debilitating effects on the dynamics of the brain. memory.
Factors that positively influence memory
On the contrary, intellectually stimulating habits , such as reading and mental exercises, the intake of antioxidants such as green tea, vitamin B12, vitamin D and the endorphins and de-stressing hormones that the body secretes during physical exercise or sexual intercourse , have an enhancing effect on memory and mental processes. Adequate sleep and coffee intake are also counted among these positive influencing factors.
Diseases that affect memory
There are diseases and pathologies that affect the functioning of human memory, in a range that can oscillate between temporary amnesia, such as that suffered during a state of traumatic shock and which recovers naturally and gradually, to degenerative diseases that corrupt memory, such as Alzheimer's disease, caused by the appearance of plaques and knots in different regions of the cerebral cortex that prevent adequate synapses.
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