Memories: To keep or not to keep


The brain is a complex system of neurons and synapses—junctions between nerve cells—which work together via proteins to form memories. There are three ways memories are stored: first in the sensory stage, then in short-term memory, and finally—for some memories—in long-term memory. The three stages of human memory act as a filter, protecting us from the information flood we are confronted with daily.

Doctors classify memories based on the amount of time the memory is stored. Short-term memory is the very short time that you keep something in your mind before dismissing it or transferring it to long-term memory. Long-term memory, on the other hand, is our brain’s system for storing, managing, and retrieving information.

Short-term memory loss is the person’s inability to recall recently occurred events; it may range from previous seconds to a few days. According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation (BAF), brain aneurysm may cause short-term memory loss. Brain aneurysms are weak, bulging spots on the wall of brain arteries; they do not always rupture, but when they do, they may cause bleeding into the compartment surrounding the brain. The pool of blood clots, increases the pressure on the brain and can irritate, damage, or destroy brain cells.

Finding Nemo, the famous 2003 Pixar animated movie for children, introduced us to Dory; a fictional blue tang fish that suffers short-term memory loss. She knows who she is, but has difficulty forming or encoding new memories. She accidentally meets Marlin while he chases a boat of scuba divers who have just captured his son, Nemo. Dory recalls seeing the boat and agrees to show Marlin the way it went; however, after swimming a few minutes, she completely forgets who he is and why he is following her. Dory suffers from anterograde amnesia, a problem learning new information; yet, she helps Marlin find Nemo.

In humans, anterograde amnesia is most associated with anterior temporal damage, particularly to a structure called the hippocampus, a brain structure located in the medial temporal lobe. Memories before the cause of amnesia are usually preserved. If you have a short-memory loss, you may do some small actions to cope with the condition:

  • Keep everyday items in the same place and try to do things in the same order each time.
  • Write down information you think may be important.
  • Keep a diary at home, as well as at work, to remind you to do daily tasks.
  • Use an alarm clock to help you remember to do something in the future, such as taking something out of the oven.
  • Repeat important information you need to remember to someone or to yourself.

On the other hand, long-term memories are formed when short-term memories are consolidated in the hippocampus; once the memories are consolidated, they are available independent from the hippocampus in the neocortex, where they can be retrieved. A patient with long-term memory loss has problems recalling stored memories, not creating new memories. Physical injuries, brain tumors and strokes, and degenerative diseases can lead to long-term memory loss.

Memory is similar to a jigsaw puzzle; to remember a past event, we piece together various remembered elements. How well we remember things depends to a great extent on how well we are attentive when material is presented. In addition, the extent to which we replay the material in our minds and relating it to what we already know affects our ability to remember.

Some people are lucky—or unlucky, depending on the memories—have photographic memory. Just like a photograph freezes a moment, people with photographic memory are able to take mental snapshots and recall them without error later. It is unclear whether this type of memory is trainable or is it related only to the events that affected us deeply.

Though some people are born with this unique brain chemistry specialized for an advanced photographic memory, almost anyone can improve their memory exponentially. Proper supplementation, diet, exercise, meditation, and perfecting your sleep are keys to maximize your brain health to create an environment for massive memory growth and cognitive enhancement. Memory training programs are essential to unlocking your brain’s full potential to become the ultimate memory machine.

Memory is still a deeply complex thing that we are only beginning to understand. However, if you encounter any memory loss symptoms, do not panic; do like Dory, and “just keep on swimming”.


The article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Autumn 2017 Issue.

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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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