I've heard stories recently about people's memories being poorer during the pandemic lock-downs. I do kind of feel mine has gotten worse. Reading these stories made me realise I don't really know much about memory. What actually is a memory? How do they work? Where can I find them in my brain?
Fortunately for me (and for you), I've been working with a year 10 student, through a girls in STEM mentoring program called Curious Minds. Kaede has been researching memory, and is here to give us the lowdown on what's going on in our brains.
Our brains are constantly receiving input from our environment and storing these events and experiences as memories. Memories are "made" of networks of brain cells (neurons) that form connections, or synapses, and work together.
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So how do we make a memory? It starts with a process called encoding. This is where sensory input (sights, sounds, smells) of an experience is converted into chemical and electrical impulses in our brains. Memories can then undergo consolidation, where the neural networks "holding" that memory are strengthened. Experiences that are out of the ordinary are more likely to be encoded and consolidated. Subsequent retrieval of these memories is based on cues, or reminders. When we have sensory input that matches or overlaps with the stored information, we can recall the memory.
All these different processes use different brain structures and regions. The sensory input, which is used in encoding, is processed in places like the occipital lobe (for visual input), the auditory cortex (hearing and language), and the parietal lobe (touch and temperature).
Our short-term working memories are stored in the prefrontal cortex, at the front of our brain. For longer-term storage information is sent to the hippocampus for consolidation. That information is then passed along to the cerebral cortex for long-term storage. Damage to any of these different brain regions can impact on our ability to store or retrieve memories.
So why might our memories be worse during lockdown? It's not because the memory regions of our brains are damaged. Instead current theories suggest it's because of a lack of novel stimuli - when we're hanging out in the same environment day after day without a lot of new experiences our brains just aren't getting as much stimulation to encode and consolidate strong memories.
Thanks Kaede for teaching me so much about memories. I promise I'll try to remember it all.