What to Know About Memories

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 25, 2022
5 min read

With 86 billion neurons and 10 trillion synapses, the human brain records new memories every day. 

Memory is our brain’s ability to acquire, store, and recover information from various experiences. Sometimes information is not properly stored, and other times we forget things. While memory problems are often nothing more than a minor inconvenience, persistent memory issues could be a sign of a more serious problem like Alzheimer's or dementia. 

When we remember moments, we generally try to access the happy times in our life instead of dwelling on negative thoughts. However, human memory is not a flawless process, and those who suffer from anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder may have difficulty overcoming bad memories despite their best efforts. Understanding memories and why we remember certain moments over others can help us better understand ourselves and the world around us. 

Researchers believe the key to knowing how we remember starts with pinpointing what we remember and why. Asking these questions could lead to scientific breakthroughs that address lapses in memory. Here is what you should know about memory and how it works.

Scientists must understand how the brain works to find new ways to treat complex neurological diseases. The brain is a complex network of neurons and synapses that transmits signals to various parts of the body and regulates a wide range of essential functions. These functions include thinking, learning, feeling emotions, and remembering. Memory's basic structure and function can be separated into three stages or memory types. 

Here are the three main types of memory:

  • Sensory memory: this is the earliest stage of your memory and often only stores information for a short period of time. 
  • Short-term memory: this is anything you’re already thinking about. These memories are often forgotten quickly. 
  • Long-term memory: also known as the "preconscious or unconscious mind," long-term memory is information outside our immediate awareness but can be accessed when needed

Our ability to recall past events and draw upon important information can be attributed to the continuous process that is our memory. Memory is an integral part of human cognition allowing us to not only retain information over time but also give us a frame for understanding behavior. 

The three main processes that describe how memory works are encoding, storage, and retrieval. Three main processes characterize how memory works. Encoding is the first type and refers to how information is learned, understood, and changed to support storage. The four methods through which information is encoded are visual, acoustic, semantic, and tactile. 

Information enters your memory system through one of these modes and is encoded in your short-term memory through the second type of process called storage. Retrieval is the final type of memory process that describes how individuals access stored information. When stored information is lost over time, reconstructing a memory can become complex and subject to error. 

How strong your memory is and how much time has passed will influence the rate at which your memory decays. Some memories may last longer than others, while others are brief and only allow people to take in sensory information. However, long-term memories can be drawn into consciousness when needed, with most lying outside your immediate awareness.

Many different factors explain why certain images remain in your mind. For instance, faces may be easier for you to recall if you perceive the person to be attractive or believe they have an interesting look. What makes something memorable can't be explained by simple attributes like a particular function, color, and texture. The memories that stick in a person's mind are unique to the individual and their experiences. A person's brain will identify what it believes to be important information and store it for long-term use. 

When you picture your brain, imagine that it is literally made up of a web of memories. Every sensory experience you go through is responsible for constantly remaking your brain by triggering changes in the molecules of your neurons. The information must be converted into a usable form by our brain for a memory to be created. This happens through the process known as encoding. Once your brain encodes the memory correctly, it is stored in memory.

Memories are created through the connections between the neurons in our brains. The growth of new connections or strengthening of these connections between nerve cells, known as synapses, can help information to become stored as a memory. When you rehearse or review information, this explains why your brain can retain and remember it. Doing this is one way to practice strengthening those connections and make it easier to recall important memories. 

Retrieving memories is the process that allows us to bring stored information that stays outside our awareness most times into our conscious awareness. Your brain's ability to tell time and collect and connect experiences is why memory exists. Memory can be defined as a reactivation of the connections between different parts of your brain. Beginning as early as infancy, your memories form when you hear a voice or see an important face.

When you remember a positive social interaction or a particularly happy time, recalling the memory may benefit you by reshaping how you view yourself. Some research also suggests that remembering happier moments in your life may be effective against stress or depression. 

Additionally, studies conducted on the brain's prefrontal cortex found that several areas involved in cognitive control or regulation became more active whenever individuals were asked to recall a positive memory.

This may suggest that periods of anxiety or depression may be interrupted by remembering happier times. People with symptoms of depression may be more likely to recall negative memories and even remember these as even worse than they might've been. 

When someone tends to gravitate toward negative thoughts, the activation of these negative mental pathways strengthens, and to counteract this process, the individual should recall happier times in their life. Recalling happy memories can fuel feelings of gratitude and combat negativity. Overcoming bad memories is never easy but not impossible, and we can train our brains to replace waves of negative thoughts with memories of better times.