We’ve all heard stories of seniors showcasing incredible feats of detailed memory recall from their childhood after receiving electroshock therapy. How about savants like Kim Peek who effortlessly digest volumes of information with inconceivable retention, even over extended periods of time. How exactly do we learn, store, and recall things as we move through life?
As with most neurological topics, the answer is “we don’t know for sure, but here’s our latest understanding.” When we make an observation, study, or just experience life in general, information bounces around in a “working memory” heavily regulated by the hippocampus for roughly fifteen minutes, and is then shipped off diffusely into the cortex. Long term memory is actually long term because the memory has structurally modified a neural network. The more we exercise said network, the more ingrained the memory becomes. What’s incredibly fascinating is that when we recall from our long term bank, the thought is placed back into working memory and risks being “knocked out” (theoretically) in the event of trauma.
Memory is a global process – there’s no single spot on the brain dedicated for remembering things, although they tend to be stored near their respective sensory origins. For example, things you’ve seen are stored more posteriorly towards the occipital lobe (primary visual cortex). Yet due to the brain’s amazing plasticity (especially early during infancy), in the event of a structural malformation or parenchymal damage, the already blurry distinction between structure and function is made even more obscure as neurons find a way to compensate for the defect.
So what modulates all of this activity? How do some people remember facts better than others? How do I find it easier to remember the lyrics to music from ten years ago but not the behavioral science lectures I covered yesterday evening? Well the real answer is no one really knows.
It’s just a testament to the tremendous complexity yet elegance of neuroscience. 🙂