How Memory Works

There’s little as important as memory as you age. These things are all some people have, but they seem to fade as you grow older. Some details simply can’t be recalled, and it feels like you’re missing a part of your life. It’s not something that you should want to happen to you, but most people believe that there’s no way around it. This isn’t really the case, though. It turns out that the key to maintaining your memories may be as simple as remembering them as often as you can.

The University of Queensland released a study on the subject that goes into great detail on how memories are formed and how you can keep them around. As they state from their research: “A connection between two neurons becomes stronger when neuron A consistently activates neuron B, making it fire an action potential (spike), and the connection gets weaker if neuron A consistently fails to make neuron B fire a spike. Lasting increases and decreases in synaptic strength are called long-term potentiation (LTP) and long-term depression (LTD).” That basically means that, the more you remember something the stronger the memory is going to become and will be easier to recall.

It’s all about Neurons

Memories really come down to neurons and how you use them in your brain. Every time you bring up a memory, you’re creating a specific neuron path. The more you use that neuron path, the stronger it becomes. As the Queensland Brain Institute explains it: “Memories occur when specific groups of neurons are reactivated. In the brain, any stimulus results in a particular pattern of neuronal activity—certain neurons become active in more or less a particular sequence.

“If you think of your cat, or your home, or your fifth birthday cake, different ensembles, or groups, of neurons become active. The theory is that strengthening or weakening synapses makes particular patterns of neuronal activity more or less likely to occur. As a five-year-old, if given the word ‘house’, you might have imagined a drawing of a house. As an adult, upon hearing the same word you may well picture your own house—a different response for the same input. This is because your experience and memories have changed the connections between neurons, making the old ‘house’ ensemble less likely to occur than the new ‘house’ ensemble.” Of course, this can also lead to false memories in our brains.

Misremembering over Time

Memory is a very fickle thing and can be changed over time. Just consider a scenario where you remember a living room you used as a child. You can remember exactly what this living room looked like until your memory gets altered by new information. It’s possible to add information to your memory with your subconscious. Maybe there’s a specific clock that you remember from a totally different house. This other house isn’t remembered as often, but the clock sticks out in your mind. It’s very possible to start remembering this clock in the original living room that you think about often. Now, the more you remember this clock in this living room, the more real it becomes to you.

There isn’t a whole lot that you can do to stop this from happening. It’s a natural part of the human brain and you’re always at risk of it happening to you. Your memory is only ever going to be as good as the last time you remembered it. That’s why a conversation with an older person can include memories that never actually happened. It has nothing to do with age, it’s just a function of the brain.

Sleep is Important

If you want to maintain a healthy memory for as long as possible then you have to make sure you sleep as much as you can. It turns out that during sleep, the hippocampus and neocortex take part in a carefully choreographed dialogue in which the hippocampus replays recent events: the same hippocampal neurons active during an experience become activated again during slow-wave sleep, over and over in a time-compressed manner, helping to update the neocortex as to what needs to be stored. This replay only occurs during sleep, so if you’re skimping on sleep, you aren’t letting your brain consolidate memories.

So, sleep as much as possible and keep your brain healthy. While you’re doing that, understand that your memory may not be perfect. It’s just how human beings are and we’re all fallible. Memory fails and memory evolves. It’s something we all have to live with.