Memory is a complex and mind-bending concept. Ask a boffin or go online and you’ll learn that human memory is a faculty – a function of the brain that allows us to acquire, store, retain and recall information. Sounds very similar to how a computer would be described! While it might be true, it doesn’t begin to tell the story of what our memories are made of. Why for example, can our minds narrate an incident that happened in our childhood perfectly but not tell us what we had for dinner last Friday?
Memory is certainly not a perfect process, but without it, our lives and our societies would simply not exist as we know it. The nature and processes of it have fascinated scientists for thousands of years, but much is still shrouded in mystery. In this piece, we delve into what we do know to answer that age-old question: what is memory?
“We will all lose our memory one day, you can’t insure your memory… But you can insure your memories …. Write them down.”
The process of memory depends on neurons. These nerve cells are the key parts of our brain and nervous system, and all that we learn and experience is encoded on to them. When we recall memories, certain neurons fire simultaneously and they create something like a collage in our minds, reconstructing events and experiences from various neurons scattered through our brains. It is a very individual process, perhaps best captured by the French novelist Marcel Proust, who famously wrote “remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” The process works as follows:
When you experience something new or learn a new fact, the process of encoding begins. Your senses will dictate what you perceive around you. It’s not just the eyes either – you can remember sounds, smells and what you touched just as vividly, and often more so! Your sensory perceptions are then processed by a part of your brain called the hippocampus. These perceptions are then analyzed and either recorded as information on neurons, or simply dismissed as being unimportant.
At this point, your brain decides how to record this new information. Neurons then come into play to store the new data. Think of your mind as an electrical circuit. As new memories are formed, neurons form new links, known as synapses, with other neurons. These will then allow memories to be held unconsciously stored then transferred as needed by your conscious mind. Your brain can create trillions of synapses!
While the first two parts of the process are mainly unconscious, when you recall the information, this is dictated by your conscious mind. You think and reach out to your unconscious mind and your neurons transfer the data to you via the linking synapses. What you remember will depend on your interpretation at the time and how hard you were concentrating. If you have the television on but are looking at your phone at the same time, then you’re not going to remember what happened as well as if your phone was in your pocket!
Not all memory is the same. How you record it and can recall it depends on the nature of the experience. Neurologists believe memory falls into two broad categories – short term and long term. Think of short-term memory as your “working” mind; in other words what you currently are thinking about. Depending on the individual, roughly 5-10 items can be held in your short-term memory. The information’s good for around 30 seconds. Long term memory is the stuff you keep indefinitely – it includes all the memorable events, experiences, names, faces and dates. It also holds unconscious learned skills like driving and information you learned as a baby.
The process of making memories is totally natural to us, yet our understanding of it is really still in its infancy. It is an incredible thing – so vital to our shared existence, and so individual. We’ve all got our own unique interpretation on events, and we all remember random and odd stuff that has no real reason to be in there! While we’re finding out more and more what our memories are made of as each year passes, we’re also learning more about memory loss. With age, our ability to recall declines, either as a result of simply getting older, or developing a disorder such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
When memories are lost, they can be lost forever. But there are things you can do to preserve and boost them. Good diet, regular exercise and getting enough sleep are vital. Living an active and social life will help to keep your brain in great shape.
Writing down your recollections and experiences will not only help to implant them into your brain but will allow you to easily reference them in the future. A wonderful way to do this is to write your life story. Putting your memories into words will allow you to relive your experiences again. We will all lose our memory one day; it is something that can’t be insured. But you can insure your memories live on: write them down! You’ll preserve them not only for your lifetime, but for generations of your family to come. There are just so many benefits that come with telling your story.
If you’ve thought about writing your memoirs, you’ll know it can be daunting. Where to start? What to put in? What to leave out? That’s where LifeBook, the world’s leading bespoke memoir and autobiography service, can help. Our team of experts will work with you to create a beautiful book that you and your family will cherish.
Contact us today to find out more about starting your memoirs.