Making a Memory: How it Works

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Memories are a constant companion in life. Both good and bad, memories stay with you and inform your choices from day to day. Because memories are such an important part of life and a critical component of mental health, it’s important to understand how your brain makes them and how you can keep your memory healthy.

What is Memory?

Memory is a broad term for several different mental processes that include sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. Each of these aspects carries a different task in your brain’s process of memory.

Sensory memory has the broadest scope. Your brain is constantly barraged with audio and visual data. Sights, sounds, smells and other senses are filtered through your sensory memory. Your sensory memory processes a lot of information quickly and discards the pieces your brain deems unnecessary.

Short term memory lasts a little longer than sensory memory. These are the bits of information that you pull from your sensory memory and hold onto for a few seconds or minutes while you work with that data.

Long-term memory consists of the pieces of information or experiences that have transitioned from short-term memory into long-term memory. Long term memory is more like a computer’s hard drive, in that your memories are stored and can be accessed at any time. Sometimes this requires stimuli, such as a familiar sight, smell or other reminder.

How Does Memory Work?

Short-term memory is important for remembering small amounts of information for a short period of time. Your brain can only hold around 7 pieces of information in short-term memory at any one time, but long-term memory can hold a lot more information.

Your short-term and long-term memories often work in conjunction. As you receive new stimuli or data (sensory memory), your brain sifts through it for pertinent information that remains in your short-term memory for a brief time. While those pieces of information pass through your short-term memory, your brain opens your long term memory archive and pulls relevant, connecting information to the surface.

Memories are formed by stimulation of the hippocampus in your brain. As you receive new data, your brain generates new synapses to communicate between the cells of your body. These new synapses are temporary at first, reflecting your short-term memory, but those temporary synapses can become permanent when your hippocampus is repeatedly stimulated and generates new RNA and proteins to solidify the synaptic pathways.

All of this happens at a cellular level when you spend time repeating and memorizing information in your short-term memory. While you learn mnemonic devices, such as Every Good Boy Does Fine (EGBDF) for the notes of the musical treble staff, your brain is working to create new synapses so the cells in your brain can communicate and store the information.

How Can You Keep Your Memory Healthy?

Memory can be fragile. Brain injuries or diseases like Alzheimer’s can lead to memory loss. As you age, your brain doesn’t work as quickly and it’s more difficult to form new memories. Even when you are young, you can take steps to improve your memory.

Taking time to stop and focus on a memory and engaging as many senses as possible can help you strengthen your memory. Multitasking rarely leads to good memorization because your brain is trying to process multiple avenues of input at once.

Your brain subconsciously organizes information into logical chunks, and you can help your memory by consciously breaking information into bits and organizing it. Repetition can also be important to memory.

Eating nutritious foods and getting enough sleep are also important to memory. With the right foods, your brain will be healthier and better able to form new memories. Sleeping well can help you solidify new memories and allow your brain to function optimally.

Memory is an important aspect of balanced mental health, and taking care of your body and mind can help keep your memory healthy and active. A healthy mind is the cornerstone of achieving and maintaining your sobriety.

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