How memory func­tions and also fails

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Our memory functions dif­fer­ent­ly to a hard drive, which stores information precisely and keeps it ready for retrieval. Memories are reconstructions of past experiences and can therefore be influenced. As soon as we look back, we mistake and distort things.

From which age do we remember things?

Neurobiologists agree that no one can remember their early childhood. Our first memories are created between the ages of four and five – only then has the brain developed sufficiently to be capable of memory. People who think they remember early childhood have probably formed false memories. With the help of photos from our childhood, it’s quite easy to fool our own memory.

Which phase of life seems particularly vivid to us?

When we look back on our life, we are usually best at remembering the time between the ages of 15 and 25. Memory research calls this phenomenon the reminiscence effect. 70% of a person's memories relate to the first third of their life. According to psychology historian Douwe Draaisma, this is when many people have emotionally formative «pioneering experiences» – their first love or their first day at work. Only 30% of memories are located in the remaining two thirds of life, as pioneer experiences become rarer.

How do memories stick in the mind?

Memory is the ability of the nervous system to store and retrieve information. There are three forms of memory:

  1. Our sensory memory records information for short periods of time (less than a second) and enables the brain to constantly take note of our environment.
  2. Our working memory acts as an information processing system, and stores fleeting thoughts from our sensory memory.
  3. Only the long-term memory stores large amounts of information permanently.

Emotions affect how the memory is stored

The act of remembering starts in the hippocampus. This area lies deep down in the temporal lobe of the brain and stores what is going on in the head. Emotions play an important role in the process. Every conscious memory is linked to a feeling. The more emotional an experience was, the more strongly a person remembers it.

Emotional experiences such as punishments, humiliations or successes leave deep imprints in the memory.

When memory fails

According to psychologist Daniel Schacter, there are «seven sins of memory». These include forgetting, mental blocks and absence of thought. These «sins» are annoying, but necessary, as it’s the only way the brain can reject irrelevant information. Memory failure is a health issue when it occurs in the form of amnesia or recurring memories.

Why does the storage function stop working?

Amnesia is a deficit in our long-term memory. It is triggered by brain injury, illness or trauma. There are two forms of amnesia:

  • In retrograde amnesia, all memories that happened before the (traumatic) event are erased.
  • A person with anterograde amnesia is unable to store new memories.

When are memories «unwanted»?

Many people remember unpleasant or embarrassing experiences – often in stressful situations. Distressing or traumatic experiences come back as recurring memories: people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder have flashbacks, for example. In such a moment they can no longer control their memories.

Distorted memories

We reconstruct experiences from the past to make them align with the person we see ourselves as today. Who likes to admit to not having ended a relationship that broke down 20 years ago? This means that, over time, memories start to differ from the experienced reality. By contrast, it’s not possible to actively suppress or repress memories.

Do we have «false» memories?

It’s difficult to differentiate between false and true memories. A false memory is not a lie. It's much more a question of what a person holds on to when recounting an experience or mulling over their thoughts. It’s often the case that false memories become more detailed over time. These changes usually don’t affect the core of the memory, only the details.

Can memories be repressed?

This is a controversial subject. Some approaches claiming to uncover repressed memories are suggestive and can contribute to false memories being uncovered. Studies have shown that people cannot repress traumatic experiences. War veterans, for example, are driven to distraction by their memories because they can no longer get the images out of their heads.

When memories won’t let go

If you are haunted by negative or traumatic experiences from the past, it's essential that you get help from a mental health specialist. Sleep problems, lack of drive, lack of concentration and the feeling of being overwhelmed are warning signals. Talking about your problems, fears and negative feelings is empowering and the first step in transforming a negative past into a positive future.

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